With “Shrek Forever After,” now available on DVD, the jolly green giant, er, ogre seems to be coming to the end of the road—and a good thing, too. Though it retains some of the wit and originality of the original, now a decade gone, the current number in the series has lost some of the momentum. Like its characters, it has reached a comfortable middle age, so planning to retire feels timely.
After a storybook opening outlining the saga, the scene shifts to Shrek: Family Ogre, father of triplets, happy husband, and tourist attraction. He’s in a rut, longing for the good ol’ days when his roar terrified the townsfolk. Unbeknownst to him, an evil dwarf, Rumpelstiltskin, has vowed revenge for an old defeat at Shrek’s unwitting hands. He tricks the big guy into signing a contract that will allow him to trade one day of his past for his kingdom—but just for a day.
Not exactly a great negotiator, Shrek signs; however, the day he gives up is the day of his birth. Since he was never born, all the good things that his heroic life has brought are gone. (If you’re hearing echoes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” well, good for you, holiday movie fan.) At first, his dreams seem to come true: children and adults run in terror at his approach, he is left to himself, and even Donkey stops braying at him. In short, as Karen Carpenter sings, he’s on top of the world.
But the castle has been taken over by “King” Rumpelstiltskin, a foppish dude who knows how to party with his entourage, consisting almost entirely of witches. Shrek’s getting his place and his family back before the day runs out (there’s an “out clause” in the contract) becomes the main tension. It requires our hero to reforge his alliances with Donkey (Eddy Murphy), Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), and even Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who is now the leader of an Ogre Underground that aims to straighten out The Rumple.
The latter third of the movie largely comprises action sequences meant to thrill the young audience. (I didn’t see the 3-D theatrical version—hey, I’m cheap!—but the marks of it are all too clear in the conventional format.) The off-the-wall wit and the originality of the Shrek series largely disappear here, and the fairy-tale ending is totally telegraphed. The well-known actors voicing the animated characters seem a little bored in this latest iteration. My favorite, in fact, was a non-actor: story maven Walt Dohrn, who makes a wonderfully nasty yet wimpy Rumpelstiltskin, a kind of 18th century dandy who comes to power with no idea how to exercise it.
“Shrek Forever After” triumphed at the box office this summer, not surprisingly. It’s rated “PG’ for “mild action, some rude humor, and brief language.” For my money, the humor coulda been ruder and the language less brief—but that’s just me. All but the smallest fry should be OK with this one, with a comforting parental hand to hold as needed. The end credits review the entire series, Nos. 1-4, and seem not to point toward a No. 5. Let it be so.