Shrek the Third (film, 2007)

Originally published in Death Ray 3, in 2007.


Director: Chris Miller

Writers: Andrew Adamson, Howard Gould

Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas

The unstoppable great green ogre franchise marches on with all the unstoppability of a great green ogre – Shrek is back for his third outing. Box office receipts  alone for the swamp-dweller’s previous two adventures have topped $1.4 billion, and doubtless this installment will only add to that giant pile o’ cash, so huge a hoard that even a very large dragon (or indeed Hollywood exec) would be eminently happy with it. Economic incentives on this scale simply dictate that there will be more Shrek movies. With two more sequels and a spin-off in the works, it’s certain there is financial juice left in the franchise. Thing is, can Shrek support more outings, or is this a concept that has run out of creative steam?

Any sequel would suffer in comparison with something as original and witty as the original Shrek, and it’s a credit to the scriptwriters that the second film was as strong as it was.

But let’s just say up front that Shrek the Third is not as good. Not by a long chalk.

The film has its moments, and it is an enjoyable watch that will appeal to all ages, though the scale is sliding firmly in the direction of the kids. Much of the clever subversion of fairytale cliché that made the first two movies such delicious treats has gone to be replaced by a clunky, barely functional plot and gratuitous cuteness. Shrek is now merely yet another cartoon.

Shrek the Third begins with our heroes in Far, Far Away. Fiona’s dad, Harold the Frog King is dying. Just before Harold croaks, he tells Shrek that he is to be king next, something which Shrek is not happy about, so Harold reveals that there is another heir, Arthur. Shrek immediately sets off to bring him home.

With Shrek gone, the disgraced Prince charming makes his move on the throne, rallying all the malcontents of fairytale about him, promising them “their happily ever afters”. It’s up to Princess Fiona and her friends Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella et al to sort out Charming while Shrek, Donkey and Puss track down Arthur.

All this is shoddily set up through overly wordy scenes that give us little insight into the characters. One of the great things about the first two Shreks is just how tightly plotted they are, the characters drive each scene, each scene drives the story, leading us on into greater moments of tension and hilarity. Shrek the Third is a series of loosely connected vignettes, amusing in themselves, but with no structure to tie them together. Furthermore, the film lacks a strong climax, something the others are lavishly blessed with, and its plentiful humour is undermined by a laborious  lecture on “making choices”. This message was delivered with far more subtlety and verve by the other two films, and we don’t need to hear it again.

That’s part of the problem here. We’ve seen too much of this before. The irony of an ogre who turns out to be a really nice guy has gone. We now just see him as a really nice guy. He’s made his choice, Fiona’s made her choice, we know they’re happy. There’s supposed to be some further development of the characters, but Shrek’s trepidation about being a father is not explored in any depth. It may sound ludicrous to talk this way about a kid’s film, but the other two movies stood up to such examination.

The scrappiness of the film is partially the fault of the number of characters. There are far too many, all clamouring for screen time. A lot of them started life as gags – their one joke was said and novelty gone two films back. It’s obvious that the writer Chris Miller loves all the characters, but there is simply not the narrative space for them. The result is a film that has the feeling of a Christmas Special, something created for an audience of undemanding fans who can be replied upon to sit there and clap like Pavlovian seals at the characters’ mere emergence onto the screen.

The film introduces a slew more minor personages, so doubtless they’ll be back in future films, further clogging up the story. Artie is a “movie kid type 1(c) Bullied good-hearted youth” from Hollywood’s enormous catalogue of stereotypes. Merlin is not terribly useful to the plot, and then there are the princesses… Fiona’s band of chums totally undermine the cleverness of the franchise. Having them all be kung fu devils really doesn’t ring true, it’s Girl Power™fit for the side of a polystyrene cup, and reaches ridiculous heights when Julie Andrews starts headbutting her way through solid stone walls.

The franchise is running out of fairytales to parody. Shrek the Third has a clumsy go at Arthurian legends, but the Arthur myth does not have the same coherence or recognisability factor that Grimm-type fairytales do, and in any case it is not really subverted at all, it’s just there. The film instead starts to chew on its own tail, and the denoument, delivered on stage where a play about part of Shrek’s life is being performed within the movie we’re watching, one that is itself a pastiche of a genre, is several post-modern gimmicks too many.

The film does have its good points. The interaction between the, albeit too numerous, characters is as good-natured and sparky, and there are some seriously good sight gags and one-liners. As well as this, the film has two standout sequences – Shrek’s nightmare, where he is buried under a tidal wave of baby ogres (looking like so many be-nappied, green Jes Bickhams) and a hilarious montage where the Gingerbread Man’s life flashes before his eyes. But these are notably divorced from the main story, little moments that live on their own, when in the earlier films they would have formed an important part of the story.

Technically, the film is impressive too, but the days have past when an animation could get by on its innovative technologies. It’s a poor figleaf for the story’s chaotic, overindulgent structure, even if it is a million pixel, almost photo-realistic figleaf.

American culture is a paradoxical thing. It can be super-bright, like Frasier was, and it can be Joey-from-Friends dumb. The franchise has gone from the sharpest end of American wit, gleefully ribbing dumb-ass franchises, only to become one. Franchises like this age like butterflies in reverse – transforming from beautiful adults into fat, ugly bugs. Shrek hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but as he says to Artie at one point, “Now you’ve overdone it.”

Did you know?

This massive money-spinning franchise was started by Shrek!, a children’s book by William Steig published in 1990. It was about a vile young ogre who goes in search of adventure, only to end up marrying a princess who is even uglier than he is.

William Steig was born in 1907, the son of an Austrian immigrant. His family was artistic. His mother and father dabbling in art, while his older brother Irwin was a professional artist who gave Steig his first lesson.

Steig was a renowned cartoonist for The New Yorker, producing more than 1600 drawings for them in a career that began way back in 1930. In 1968, aged sixty-one, he decided to have a go at children’s books, writing and illustrating 19 in all in subsequent years. He died in 2003, aged 95.


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