Shrek the first gave us superficially ugly and scary characters with good hearts who realize their happiness does not depend on being transformed into a handsome prince or a lovely princess. Well, with the release of Shrek the Third, we have grounds for thinking our original suspicions justified; the ogre here, the Shrek industry, eats its young, even as Shrek (Mike Myers) the character tries to come to terms with the fears of fatherhood. The family-values plot-line, a very promising one, gets buried under an avalanche of fatuous cameos of characters from mythical neverland.
With the death of Fionna's (Cameron Diaz) father, the Frog King, the realm is left without a leader. Shrek is next in line, but he demurs saying that he isn't up to the task; he's also suffering from self-doubt over his readiness to take on the duties of fatherhood, after Fiona announces that she is pregnant. Accompanied by his buddies Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), Shrek heads off to find the next in line, Fiona's cousin, Arthur (Justin Timberlake). He's attending Worcestershire Academy, a high school populated by nerds and mean girls, who have taken speech lessons in the Valley. Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is leading a rebellion of self-styled losers in an attempt to remove Shrek and take over the throne.
Shrek's crowd receives the assistance of nearly mad Merlin, who ends up transferring the souls of Donkey and Puss into one another's bodies. Donkey, examining his new feline look, complains, "I've been abracadabraed into a second rate sidekick." Alas, Puss and Donkey are given too few good lines in this film. Perhaps the most telling indication of how little comic substance there is to this installment is that one of the most entertaining and most energetic sequences is a mini-music video, a witty rendition of Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" that plays as the final credits roll.
To say that the film disappoints would be to put it mildly ("less than ok," was the verdict of Daniel, my eleven-year-old); the film is a cynical, pointless exercise that exists only because the previous films made money. Instead of focusing on its well-known and popular characters, the film decides to introduce a litany of undeveloped characters from the world of classical myth and old Disney films. The formula, which worked so effectively in the original Shrek movie, of lightly spoofing and inverting the plotlines and character types of traditional myths, here is taken to absurd and thoughtless extremes. Such parasitic satire is predictably subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Also predictable is that Shrek will embrace his destiny. With Donkey and Dragon having given birth to a brood of fire-breathing donkeys and Fiona's pregnancy, the film might have done well to focus on families. After a bit in the opening, where Donkey bids farewell to his children (admonishing one to quit roasting marshmallows on his sister's head), the film neglects families until the very end, when Donkey and Shrek return home to their very large families. These all too brief scenes are the warmest in the entire film and contain some of the best slapstick comedy.
But in a miscalculation, the film chooses to wallow in repellent meaning mongering. Indeed, the film is less about leadership or even family than it is about the evils of high school cliques. Of course, that theme marginalizes the best characters in the film and the endless parade of mythical losers fails to sustain interest. Toward the end, the bad guys realize that they just need to love themselves; the only reason they have thought of themselves as villains or losers is because others have called them names. "This above all," Arthur just about says, "to thine own self...blah, blah, blah." Captain Hook confesses that his true love is daffodils. It would have been more appropriate for him to force the entire lot to walk the plank. Let's hope Shrek breeds no more.