Lightning strikes twice, but not as brilliantly as before, in “Shrek 2.” The welcome sequel to the monster 2001 Oscar winner about an ogre’s unlikely romance with a beautiful princess successfully recycles many of the qualities that made the first one an instant animated classic and worldwide smash. But despite the great pleasure provided by all the familiar returning characters and some nifty new ones as well, the anarchic humor isn’t quite as fresh or abundant this time around, and the message is identical. Original pulled in $480 million worldwide, $268 million of that in the U.S., making it the fourth-biggest-grossing computer-animated pic of all time, and DreamWorks will be able to ride anticipation alone to numbers approaching, but likely not equaling, those in the end. Ancillary once again reps a gold mine.
It was inevitable that any follow-up to “Shrek” would start with the honeymoon of Shrek and his bride Fiona, now ogrefied in her mate’s own image after the uproarious climactic events of the original film. And the sequel achieves its highest hilarity quotient during the opening-minutes montage, which includes some clever throwaway homages, such as a mermaid getting between the two ardent lovers during a “From Here to Eternity” wave-swept embrace, and which sees their pal Donkey obnoxiously overstaying his welcome once the couple return to settle down in Shrek’s cottage.
Due to this peppy opening and the striking reminder of how brilliantly vivid the colors and designs were in the first picture (something that comes across stunningly in digital projection), one relaxes into the comfort of director Andrew Adamson’s helming, working without original co-helmer Vicky Jenson but joined this time by Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon.
Buoyant feeling persists as the principals make an overland journey far far away to meet Fiona’s parents, the king and queen of a place literally called Far Far Away (and so signified by a Hollywood-style sign on the mountainside), where a royal ball is scheduled in their honor.
Of course, mom and dad (aptly voiced by Julie Andrews and John Cleese) have no clue as to their daughter’s recent transformation, nor to the nature of the hombre she’s married. This gives Shrek intense pause about making the trip at all, and the shocked reaction of the royals and the populace gathered to meet their carriage fully justifies his fears.
It’s only less-happily-ever-after from there. The foursome’s awkward introductory dinner spirals into a food-flinging disaster, Shrek surreptitiously reads his wife’s handsome prince-obsessed childhood diary, and Fiona’s Fairy Godmother (a devilishly good Jennifer Saunders) gets into the act by scheming with the king to eliminate Shrek so his daughter can fulfill her destiny by marring Prince Charming (the humorously vain Rupert Everett), who just happens to be her son.
The king’s solution to this is to hire the mercenary swordsman and legendary ogre killer Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, deliciously sending up his Zorro persona). At their first meeting, Puss literally gets his claws into the hitherto unflappable Shrek, but the green one quickly domesticates the diminutive feline and enlists him to battle the Fairy Godmother, whose all-purpose wand and vast store of secret potions makes her the most powerful force in the kingdom.
So far, so good. But beginning with the newlyweds’ nervous arrival and subsequent rocky first night at the castle, a certain conventionality and easy familiarity lightly cloud the proceedings. What were amusing but unstressed digs at Disney in the Lord Farquaad interludes of the first film become overdone, borderline hypocritical digs at commercialdom when the couple arrives at the City Walk-like royal city. Further, the story for too long remains grounded in the familiar in-laws dynamics of “Meet the Parents” and a host of other comedies. Puss in Boots becoming so quickly neutered also takes a little air out of the balloon.
Doing her best to elevate the proceedings is Fairy Godmother, a woman of a certain age with stylishly swept-back gray hair, glasses perched skeptically down her nose and constantly whirring wings keeping her airborne like a hummingbird. Her mind works just as fast, especially when scheming is required, and the way she maneuvers Fiona into position to marry her preening, blond-maned son despite the princess’s love for Shrek is worthy of the most cunning storybook characters.
But Shrek and his “annoying talking animal” cohorts prove themselves capable adversaries, making off with some “Happily Ever After” potion from the Godmother’s lab. A stiff dose of the stuff not only turns Shrek into a strappingly handsome leading man type and Donkey into a glorious white stallion, but Fiona back into her beauteous old self. Meanwhile, Godmother tries to convince Fiona that Prince Charming actually is Shrek, and action climax hinges on whether or not Shrek will make it back to the castle before Fiona capitulates to the prince. Finale also sees a host of fairy tale characters reentering the fray, sometimes to vastly amusing effect.
Whereas the first “Shrek” benefited from the forward momentum provided by its journey format, second installment, scripted by Adamson and previous collaborator Joe Stillman along with newcomers J. David Stern and David N. Weiss, flows less smoothly, with Fiona stuck in a dither at the castle while Shrek and his allies bounce around the land looking for a solution to his dilemma. Format provides plenty of opportunity for incident, but some of it seems self-consciously wrenched into existence rather than having grown organically out of character and situation.
Still, the appeal of the characters and the abundance of cleverness in the telling will keep viewers grinning, if not always laughing, through most of the picture. Once again, Mike Myers as Shrek, Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Cameron Diaz as Fiona provide full value with their enthusiastic voicings, and all the newcomers jump in with the proper spirit, with Saunders getting the bonus of some rambunctious musical interludes. A couple of notable cameos include Larry King as a transvestite “Ugly Stepsister” bartender and Joan Rivers as herself as a commentator at the royal ball.
Visually, pic may be even more vibrant than the first edition, with the colors and backgrounds leaping off the screen in nearly hyper-realistic fashion; numerous moments of photographic visual precision are almost unsettling in their detail. Design elements, from the imaginative costumes and glittering backgrounds to the highly articulated character work, are superb, but while Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is inventively invigorating, some of the pop song choices are uncharacteristically underwhelming for a franchise that sets its own bar so high.