"Ogres never live happily ever after" is the taunting refrain of the fairy godmother in Shrek 2, the much-anticipated sequel that premiered this weekend to nearly unanimous critical acclaim and even better-than-expected box-office numbers. Continuing the original film's witty commentary on traditional fairy tales, Shrek 2 features a fairy godmother as a conniving capitalist, who makes her point about the futility of Shrek's plight by ransacking a library full of classic fairy tales, in which she finds no happy ogres.
This scene encapsulates both the strengths and the weaknesses of Shrek 2, whose content consists almost entirely of highly allusive pastiche, a series of sharp barbs aimed at classic fairy tales. With a predictable plot that ends in a simple restatement of the lessons of the original film, Shrek 2 succeeds on the basis of its energy and its rapid-fire satire.
The original ended with the wedding of the oafish, if lovable, ogre Shrek to Princess Fiona, a beautiful young woman whose secret affliction — she turns into an ogre at night — her family has managed to conceal for many years. Fiona and Shrek fall for one another and learn to love one another just the way they are, to quote a Billy Joel song surprisingly absent from the soundtrack of the two films. In a sustained reversal of the central themes of fairy tales (the transformation of the frog into a prince or a young maiden from rags to beauty and riches), Shrek urges that beauty is more than skin deep.
The same lesson is on display in Shrek 2, which begins with Fiona's return home to the kingdom of Far, Far Away to encounter the great disappointment of her father, the king (John Cleese), over her marriage to Shrek. Unknown to her or Shrek, the king has arranged with the shrewd, entrepreneurial fairy godmother for Fiona to marry the godmother's effete son, Prince Charming. The sequel does little to reintroduce us to the characters of Shrek or Fiona; it simply presumes audience familiarity, a reasonable assumption as audience members, young and old alike, nearly applaud in recognition at the first on screen appearance of the original cast members, especially at the appearance of the sarcastic "walkin', talkin' donkey" (Eddie Murphy).
In an attempt to rid himself of Shrek, the king hires an assassin, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). After his attempt on Shrek's life fails, he joins Shrek and the donkey in their quest to find the fairy godmother, who they hope will insure that Shrek and Fiona live happily ever after. Puss in Boots, a cat with a chameleon-like ability to shift from vicious swordsman to a pitiable creature with the saddest eyes known to animation, steals many a scene. The donkey manages to hold his own, however; at one point, he regales us with the many afflictions he has endured: being sold for beans, kids playing pin the tail on him, and being used as a piñata.
The film's limitless and gleeful capacity for allusion extends not just to traditional fairy tales, but also to popular culture, including a neon sign for Far, Far Away that calls to mind the Hollywood sign, a cameo from Joan Rivers at the red carpet for the big ball, and a chase scene with a white bronco.
As was true of the first, Shrek 2 is one of those rare films that will entertain tikes, teens, and parents. Somehow I sense that I cannot be the only parent made uneasy by Hollywood's pervasive practice of introducing coyly salacious material into films intended for the whole family. For example, at one point in the film Shrek is transformed into a handsome prince, surrounded by eager-to-please maidens, one of whom gives him a back rub as another complains, "I don't have anything to rub." Pinocchio, it turns out, wears woman's underwear — a thong. Then, there's a rather disgusting scene of the cat licking himself provocatively. Does Hollywood think adults are so in need of titillation that we cannot watch a film with our kids without enjoying a few sexual references? Or is it rather that these references are there for the pre-teen audience just old enough to begin to grasp some of them and to feel quite sophisticated at this insight? Either way, I could do without such lines when I'm sitting with my 10-and 5-year-old daughters.
The film ends with donkey and Puss performing a rousing version of Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca," a fitting finale for a much more uneven film than critics have allowed, a film whose great strength is in its gags and allusions, just like a very creative music video.