When fantasy figures start having midlife crises and their animated franchises start having late-life crises, it’s time to lower the wobbly green tentpole — something few are likely to object to after “Shrek Forever After.” The reputed swan song for the series and its first entry in 3D, pic contains a respectable number of laughs, but also borrows its storyline from the oft-recycled “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and if that’s all its creators can do, it’s best to put Far Far Away far far away. A strong brand means strong initial B.O., but word of mouth likely won’t make for a fairy-tale ending.
Burps, farts and bellows have become the soundtrack to the Shrek household — which, after the swamp recovery, curse removal, in-law battling and nation building of the first three pics, now consists of Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), three gnarly children and the ever-present Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) and their respective disorderly broods.
As he changes endless diapers and sees his life succumb to monotonous routine, Shrek (Mike Myers) begins pining for the days when he was a feared and loathsome presence in the forest around Far Far Away. Is there such a thing as male ogre menopause? Pic spends an inordinate amount of time amid the domestic chaos, culminating in a scene in which Shrek smashes the cake at his kids’ party, scares the obnoxious little troll child who looks like Newt Gingrich (one of the film’s sly bits) and storms off into the woods.
At this point, “Shrek Forever After” becomes both sequel and prequel: It seems the evil Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn, also the film’s head of story), who looks like a shorter Anthony Hopkins and sounds like a cross between Pee-wee Herman and John C. Reilly, was cutting a deal with Fiona’s parents right around the time she and Shrek were falling in love and breaking her curse (the first “Shrek”). The plan: They would give Rumpelstiltskin their kingdom, he would free their daughter.
The deal fell through, but with Shrek getting all grumpy, Mr. R sees an opening: Give me a day, he says, any day out of your life, and I’ll give you some peace. Shrek accepts, and Rumpelstiltskin takes Shrek’s birthday. Suddenly, this is one ogre who finds himself in a world where he’s never been born.
Shrek’s last name? Apparently it’s Bailey. The reason “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a classic film is not simply because it ends in a deluge of sentimental Christmas ecstasy, but because it poses a deeply troubling existential crisis with terrible cosmic possibilities — not exactly what we want from our animated comedies.
On a less weighty note, the land where Shrek finds himself is a scorched forest full of flying witches, all in 3D, a technique helmer Mike Mitchell (a story artist for “Shrek the Third” whose directing credits include “Sky High” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo”) uses mostly to make things scarier: Heights are dizzying; horrified faces float in closeup; the occasional projectile flies at your face.
To its credit, though, “Shrek Forever After” (scripted by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke) continues the series’ tradition of embellishing its central story with a plethora of sight gags, snarky little asides rooted in fairy-tale revisionism and terrific vocal performances by Murphy and Banderas. They’re both hilarious, even in their slightly altered states in the parallel non-Shrek universe.
Fiona has become the leader of the Resistance, an ogre-led movement dedicated to overthrowing Rumpelstiltskin, who, in Shrek’s absence, made that fateful deal with Fiona’s parents. Now a flame-haired Valkyrie — an R. Crumb take on Xena the Warrior Princess — Fiona has as much interest in Shrek as Donna Reed’s spinster librarian had in George Bailey. But they fight the good fight and, well, you know the rest.
Whether or not Shrek has outlived his usefulness as a profit center, it’s clear that time and technology have passed him by. The original movie was released in 2001, a lifetime ago in tech years, but success has meant locking the series in visually (as well as musically and comedically). Advances in animation — notably in DreamWorks’ other recent toon, “How to Train Your Dragon” — only emphasize the dead-eyed nature of the “Shrek” characters, and in particular the creepiness of Fiona’s royal parents and their off-putting faux humanity. If “Shrek” were to continue, he’d have to change, and that just doesn’t seem possible.
Production values are tops, albeit in pursuit of what seems a dated style.