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Non-Review Review: Shrek the Third

The biggest problem with Shrek the Third is arguably reflected in its lead character. Despite producing two sequels, making a boatload of money and establishing a massively iconic franchise, it seems like the creators are unwilling to accept their changed reality. Much like the title character refuses to adapt to his new-found circumstances, and the possibility that he will become a father, Shrek the Third refuses to admit that it has essentially become the fairy-tale establishment that it so sorely ridiculed and mocked. The wry and subversive take of fairy tales championed by the original Shrek is no longer on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out. Shrek the Thirdjust stubbornly refuses to accept that.

Has the franchise lost direction?

There’s a nice moment in the middle of the film where you can see how deeply out of touch the writers are. Prince Charming, the dashing and established fairy tale hero set against Shrek in Shrek II suddenly finds himself cast down and out. Of course, this is a subversion of fairy tale norms – more classic iterations of this type of story would have had Charming rescue and wed the princess. However, disaffected and down on his luck, Charming recruits an army of disaffected fairy tale characters to help him take back what he feels is rightfully his.

Now, Charming is the obvious exception, but it seems quite clear that Shrek would have fit in quite well amongst these outcasts. Speaking to a bar full of perennial outcasts like the Ugly Stepsister and the Witch from Snow White, Charming insists, “Once upon a time, someone decided that we were the losers. But there are two sides to every story… and our side has not been told!” As a battle cry, he demands, “Who wants their happily ever after?”

It doesn’t Ogre well…

The parallels are obvious, and stunning, even if the movie never acknowledges it. Shrek is one of those outcasts. He’s one of the ugly people cast out in fairy tales because he’s not attractive or wealthy. The Ugly Stepsister and the Witch have no lesser claim on happiness than an Ogre, and it seems unfair that their class mobility is hampered. We cheered on Shrek as he took his rightful place and found happiness in a world designed to treat him as a punchline, so why are these characters any less deserving? (Ignoring, for a moment, that characters like Hook and Charming are villains.)

The reality is that Shrek is the establishment that he once rallied against, much like the franchise defined fantasy animation in the decade that followed. Even Disney, the studio visciously lampooned by the first film in the series, took some of the criticisms on board to create a next generation of fairy tale stories like Tangled. It might have been more appropriate had Charming rallied an army of dispossessed traditional characters against Shrek and his rag-tag bunch of friends (people like Lancelot, or the “proper” princess), in an attempt to “take back” what was “rightfully”theirs.

The spark is gone…

Shrek and Fiona now life in the lap of luxury. Shrek no longer fears villagers with pitch-forks. Although he might not want to be king, he has respectability. There seems to be no hint that anybody within Far, Far Away is uncomfortable with the idea of being potentially ruled by an Ogre. At one point, at her baby shower, Fiona is even presented with a “live-in babysitter”, one of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves, treated as human chattel. (If, based on what we say in Shrek, dwarves are even considered human here.) “Think nothing of it,” Snow White responds when Fiona thanks her. “I’ve got six more at home.” One senses that this was precisely the sort of racism and entitlement that Fiona and Shrek rallied against.

Of course, beyond the rather fundamental problems of identity within this third instalment, there’s also the fact that a lot of the gags just feel a little lazier and easier than they did in the first two films. For example, Shrek the Third seems to think that “ye olde speak” is hilarious in and of itself, rather than as a part of the joke. Even ignoring the title, there’s a lot of jokes about transforming olden English into high school speak that don’t quite work. “Just say nay,” a banner assures us, as the writers stick in lots of “-ith”‘s and “thou”‘s to complement the “like”‘s and “whatever”‘s. (That said, I smirked at, “Now, gentlemen, let’s away. To the showers!”)

Getting schooled…

That’s not to say that there aren’t some good gags here. They just seem fewer and far between. For example, I loved a short sequence where the gingerbread man’s life flashed before his eyes, even including the physiotherapy resulting from his brutal torture at the hands of Lord Farquaad. It is, after all, far too common that children’s films gloss over the long-term implications of that sort of torture and disability. (It helps that the animation is superb.)

Technically speaking, Shrek the Third looks pretty good. It’s amazing how far computer-generated animation has come, and the series continues to look impressive, even if the scripts aren’t quite as sharp as they were. On the other hand, the cast does feel a little long in the tooth. The original Shrek had made fantastic use of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, but bother actors now seem so comfortable in their roles that they could easily do this in their sleep. Cameron Diaz seems to making an effort, but Fiona doesn’t necessarily have a storm enough character arc to carry the film.

The Arthur Dodger…

Justin Timberlake pops up as Arthur, and it’s hardly the best impression Timberlake could make as an actor. He’d develop a lot in the years that followed, culminating in a scene-stealing performance in The Social Network, but he hardly convinces here. part of that might be down to the fact that Arthur is a barely-sketched out character, but Timberlake also seems to pushing himself a little too much, putting a bit too much energy into line readings that shouldn’t be that dramatic.

Shrek the Third is a disappointment. It seems like the series failed to adapt as well as Disney did to the changes it wrought on the world of animated fairy tales.

4 Responses

  1. If you haven’t already seen it…avoid the fourth like the plague. Do see Puss in Boots though, thats a return to form!

    • Alas, it is too late for me! Although I also quite liked Puss in Boots. Primarily because it cut down on the pop culture references, but also because it wasn’t so burdened with “oh my god, it’s so tough living a life of privilege!”

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