KIDS' STUFF: Shrek Forever After (2010)

Shrek Forever After (USA, 2010)
Directed by Mike Mitchell
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas

When the quality of a film series has noticably declined, those responsible for the series often attempt to rectify things with a last-ditch sequel. Many of these last-ditch efforts try to recapture the spirit of the original, both to remind fans of how good the franchise once was and to put memories of the bad apple out of sight and mind. While it sounds like a cynical tactic, it can occasionally be very successful, as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ably demonstrates.
Shrek Forever After (originally titled Shrek Goes Fourth) is a somewhat successful attempt to achieve the same effect with the Shrek series. It is both a partial return to form and an admission on the part of Dreamworks that they really screwed up with Shrek the Third. While not everything about it is as remotely satisfying or as funny as the series was as its peak, it is also better than we had any right to expect, and is all things considered a decent way to say goodbye.
Certainly, the film is better than you might expect given the background of its director. Mike Mitchell did work as an animator on the second Shrek, as well as working as a story artist on the passable Monsters vs. Aliens. But his directorial output has been largely awful, from the schmaltzy Surviving Christmas to the painfully unfunny Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The relative success of this film is either a stroke of good fortune or a testament to the fact that film is a collaborate medium.
As far as its plot is concerned, Shrek Forever After is essentially an attempt to recapture the spirit of the first film via the narrative of It's A Wonderful Life. It has the same basic plot of Frank Capra's film, with a protagonist who despairs of what his life has become and who firmly believes that the world would be better off without him in it. Jimmy Stewart's suicidal tendencies have been commuted to angry, empty frustration, but the fact remains that Shrek is now effectively George Bailey.
To this end, all the elements of his life which Shrek has taken for granted are played out with a sense of detachment. All the integral elements of the Shrek canon - his love for Fiona, his friendship with Donkey, the taming of Dragon and so on - are restaged without him, creating a sense of unsettling familiarity. To children who are coming to the series for the first time, this will seem like a novel and compelling idea. For adults who have grown up with the series or remember Capra's film, it's more of a pleasant rip-off, lacking the overt sentimentality which for many renders Capra unwatchable.
One of the things the film does to justify this device is showing how depressing Shrek's life has become to warrant his wish with Rumplestiltskin. We might roll our eyes at how domesticity is so easily demonised, but few of us would wish to live our entire lives out as the "loveable lug" circus attraction that he has become. The film could have gone further with this, using Shrek to send up the vapidity of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end it settles for the outburst at the birthday party and leaves it at that.
Scenes like this are clearly intended to poke fun at the series, showing that it can laugh at the commercial behemoth that it has become. But drawing attention to these features is a double-edged sword, because it also highlights how tame and ungamely the series and character has turned out to be. To use a musical analogy, it's a bit like listening to The Who play 'My Generation' today: you're impressed that the band can still belt it out, but it's also rather tragic to hear a 70-something sing "I hope I die before I get old."
The result of this is that all the funniest jokes in Shrek Forever After come with an unusual sense of sadness. It's quite a logical idea for Puss in Boots to have let himself get fat, but equally it feels like a desperate ploy in the absence of more meaningful characterisation. When the series restages key moments from the first film and then tries to surprise us, it's both a welcome alternative to repetition and an obvious thing to do. Take Donkey's attempts to woo Dragon: we know that some kind of deliberate punchline is coming, even if we can't be precisely sure what form it will take.
The most successful characterisation in the entire film is Fiona, who has regained much of the agency which she lost in Shrek the Third. The film might try and position her as somewhere between Braveheart and Joan of Arc, but she does eventually emerge as a woman of some emotional depth outside of her masculine trappings. Many films fall into the trap of believing that a strong female character is one who can simply behave like a man, and Mitchell deserves some credit for not reducing Fiona down to just another ogre.
To this end, the film benefits from the growing emotional bond between Shrek and Fiona. Unlike many other aspects of the film, it doesn't entirely suffer from an over-resemblance to the first film: here Shrek is actively trying to make Fiona fall in love with him, whereas in Shrek he was trying to do anything but. While the character dynamic is very predictable, it does become believable enough, so that by the time Shrek's day is up, we really feel for them.
While it is more emotionally resonant than the previous entry in the series, Shrek Forever After's attempts to send up fairy tales are just as half-baked. To its credit, it does solve one of Shrek the Third's biggest problems, having a villain who is convincing in both his motives and his methods. But while Rumplestiltskin himself is both memorable and funny, he's the brightest star in an otherwise ordinary firmament.
Like its predecessor, many of Shrek Forever After's fairytale touches feel derivative. The inclusion of the witches as sidekicks does feel like the film was trying to cash in on the continuing (if perplexing) popularity of Wicked. Others feel like blatant and misguided attempts to get down with the kids, offering break-dancing and hip-hop where Smash Mouth was once king. Turning the Pied Piper of Hamelin into a silent assassin is a pretty nifty concept, but he's severely underused and is reduced by the script to a brief and disappointing cameo.
The final problem that the film has to offer is the 3D. Like any number of films which were designed in 3D, there are numerous shots which exist solely to enable things to poke out of the screen - a well-worn and pointlessly pointy novelty. Whether it's the tracking shot through the window of the royal carriage or the broom chase inside Rumplestiltskin's castle, such shots are unnecessary and distracting - not what you want when your film's plot is already on shaky ground.
Shrek Forever After is as successful a film as we could possibly have hoped for, given all the baggage which it carries with it. Most if not all of the magic of the earlier films is a distant memory, and it's just as derivative as its predecessor in many respects. But its moments of humour and more resonant emotional core stop it from being completely pointless and hollow. To return to our musical analogy, it's like watching a once-great band struggle through one last rousing rendition of their greatest hits. You applaud politely at they leave the stage, but pray against there being any encore. 


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