Fourth time’s the charm

Shrek Forever After

Big Shrek on campus.

Big Shrek on campus.

Rated 5.0

The tag line for Shrek Forever After is “The Final Chapter,” and we can only hope that’s true. Not because the movie isn’t good, but because it is—so wonderful, in fact, that the Dreamworks crew behind it should have the good sense to quit when they’re way, way ahead.

The basic idea—and it was a real inspiration—was to graft It’s a Wonderful Life onto the lives of the ogre Shrek (voiced again by Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). As the movie opens, they’re happily living in Shrek’s hollow tree in the kingdom of Far Far Away, with three adorable little green kids. There’s a set routine: Shrek’s pal Donkey (Eddie Murphy) dropping in, the sightseeing bus of gawking tourists cruising by, the chaos of family dinners, the endless parade of domestic chores—all shown in a repetitive montage that grows more and more hectic as it goes along.

The routine becomes a rut to Shrek, and finally a trap. He stews in resentment—first, of all these strangers imposing on his good nature, then of his friends, and finally of his family (we can almost hear Jimmy Stewart snarling, “What do we have to have all these kids for?”). He misses the days when everyone was too terrified to impose. He longs to be a real ogre again.

That’s when the devil swoops down, in the person of oily little Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). We’ve already met him, in a prologue set during the first Shrek, when Fiona was still held prisoner in that castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. The king and queen (John Cleese, Julie Andrews), desperate to rescue their daughter, are on the verge of signing over the entire kingdom to Rumpelstiltskin in return for his magically bringing her back. But before the king can put pen to paper, a messenger bursts in with the news that Fiona is free, rescued by the ogre Shrek.

“Rumpel” has been seething ever since, and now he seizes his chance for revenge. He offers the unhappy Shrek an “Ogre-for-a-Day” contract: Shrek will get one day when he’s once again the object of fear and loathing; people will not impose on him, but will run in terror. In return, Shrek is to give Rumpel one day in his past—“Say, a day from your childhood that you don’t even remember.” Shrek eagerly signs.

The day starts out well from Shrek’s viewpoint, but he quickly sees that something is very wrong. The land is barren and decrepit, his old home gone. Then he learns that the day he gave Rumpel—the day he “didn’t even remember”—was the day he was born. He didn’t rescue Fiona, the king signed over his realm, and now Rumpel is living high at the expense of all the starving, oppressed creatures of Far Far Away. Best of all, in Rumpel’s eyes, is that since Shrek was now never born, at the end of his Ogre-for-a-Day contract, the big green guy will simply cease to exist. In true fairy-tale fashion, only love’s first kiss will break the spell; Shrek must find the now-dispossessed Fiona, make her fall in love with him all over again and kiss her before sunrise.

It takes some huffing and puffing to get the complicated story rolling, but once it does, Shrek Forever After becomes that rare sequel that actually tops the original (this is certainly the first time a third sequel has done that).

The franchise bottomed out with the woeful Shrek the Third, but all the mistakes of that miserable misfire have been rectified. For one thing, the last movie had no fewer than 12 writers. That’s not even a committee, it’s a congress, and no wonder the result was such a god-awful mess. This time they’ve all been let go, and two new guys, Josh Klausner (Date Night) and Darren Lemke, have done the honors. It’s much easier for two writers to stay focused and produce a cohesive whole than for 12.

There’s a new director, too. And while Mike Mitchell’s résumé may not be impressive (Deuce Bigalow, Surviving Christmas), he comes through here—the pacing and voice work are uniformly smooth, and so is the startlingly expressive animation, especially on Shrek and Fiona (the latter in both her pre- and post-Rumpelstiltskin characters).

This should truly be our memory of Shrek forever after. Hail and farewell, and please don’t press your luck.