Once upon a time, in a land so distant it came to be known as Far, Far Away, lived Shrek, a grumpy but otherwise agreeable ogre whose days, once wasted gloomily in a desolate swamp, were later spent happily with his ogre princess, Fiona. At least, that’s where we last saw the big, green lug, in “Shrek 2,” getting used to married life and his posh new digs. In “Shrek the Third,” he faces two new challenges — the prospect of inheriting his late father-in-law’s throne, and impending fatherhood.
That’s right, he’s having a baby — the only question is, how many? In one of the film’s most imaginative sequences, Shrek (Mike Myers) envisions his cottage overrun with baby ogres, grabbing and clutching at his tattered tunic, filling his living room (quite literally) with bile. It’s every prospective parent’s nightmare, and Shrek, whose self-esteem is intrinsically low, is certain he will make a poor father. He’s just as sure that regal life doesn’t suit him — he is an ogre, after all — and sets out in search of Arthur, who stands next in line for the throne.
Shrek is accompanied by his faithful sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas), whose running commentary remains an inspired source of comic relief even as the franchise begins to show its age. “Shrek the Third” will delight its younger fans, but it is a slighter pleasure for adults. As in “Shrek 2,” the strategy here, which is not altogether unsuccessful,is to take the things people liked about the original and cram more of them into a breezily entertaining 90 minutes. But bigger isn’t always better.
The land of Far, Far Away is full of new personalities in “Shrek the Third.” Among them: Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”) as the treacherous Rapunzel; Amy Sedaris as an obsessive-compulsive Cinderella; and Ian McShane as the fearsome Captain Hook. Even the new king of pop, Justin Timberlake, joins the fun as Arthur, a teenage outcast who is slow to embrace his new role as ruler of the fairy-tale universe.
None of the latest additions boasts the commanding presence of “Shrek 2” newcomers Puss In Boots or Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who returns here to usurp the crown. Naturally, he’s no match for Shrek, but as the irritable ogre hunts down Arthur, Charming opportunistically seizes the castle, flanked by a motley crew of fairy-tale monsters who want their happily ever afters.
An almost certain monster hit at the box office, “Shrek the Third” is more obviously calculated and less inspired than its predecessors. The franchise has legs, no doubt, but they’re starting to look a bit arthritic. (The same cannot be said for the animation — Shrek’s colorful world has never seemed so vibrant.)
Though the devious wit of the original remains, it is obscured by too many classic-rock interludes (courtesy of Led Zeppelin, Heart and Paul McCartney) and nudging pop-culture references that seem by now just part of the formula. It’s pleasant and passably diverting, with a few big laughs, but this “Third” is hardly the charm.
Shrek the Third **½
Starring Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, Rupert Everett
Written by Andrew Adamson, Howard Gould, Jeffrey Price, Peter Seaman, J. David Stern, David Weiss, Jon Zack
Directed by Chris Miller and Raman Hui
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes