Shrek the ogre is green. So is money. And frankly, since the huge success of the 2001 animated fractured-fairy-tale film, raking in sacks of greenbacks seems to be Dreamworks' plan: two sequels, each more inferior than the last; zillions of spin-off toys and licensed products; and promotional deals with kiddie junk food. Seemingly determined to squeeze the very last coin from the Shrek franchise comes Mike Mitchell's Shrek Forever After, the fourth film.
Shrek 4 opens one year after the events of the quite tedious Shrek 3. Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) is now a settled-down daddy, who lives with the missus, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their baby triplets. His days are a domestic monotony of childcare, boring friends and housework. Thus tamed, Shrek is an ogre only in name: He's just another has-been having a mid-life crisis triggered by identity issues. "Now," Shrek bemoans, "I'm just a jolly green joke."
But Shrek's public meltdown attracts the attention of the devious Rumpelstiltskin, who sees the ogre's dissatisfaction as the key to fulfilling his dreams -- that is, becoming the despotic ruler of Far Far Away. When Shrek whines, "All I want is for things to go back to the way they used to be" -- when ogres were feared and hated -- Rumpelstiltskin's quick with a contract: Sign here to trade one boring day of the past to be "Ogre for a Day."
If you guessed that Shrek signs away the day he was born, thereby altering the history of the previous three films, you must have seen It's a Wonderful Life once or twice or 10,000 times.
Yes, Shrek's a fearsome ogre again, but everything else sucks: Far Far Away is all dark and grimy; Fiona and all Shrek's friends are strangers; and Rumpelstiltskin's witch army has declared war on the ogres. In essence, Shrek 4 is a reboot of Shrek 1 and 2, where Shrek has to once again befriend Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss (Antonio Banderas), and make Fiona fall in love with him -- all while fending off a villain.
That said, Shrek 4 is marginally better than Shrek 3: The irksome product placements (Farbucks Coffee, Abercrombie & Witch) are gone, and the winky pop-culture references seem to have been dialed back. Kids won't get the mid-life crisis set-up, but at least the dusty bizarro-world plot will be fresh for them.
On the downside, there's less of Shrek's original mission -- tweaking fairy tales -- in favor of the alternate-reality trope. And for some reason, the film doesn't really stretch out the alternate universe into too many gags, preferring to revisit the franchise's existing jokes. By now, the bloom is well off the "dirty" humor (mud, slugs), as well as the single-note aspects of the main characters, such as Shrek's inexplicable Scottish accent, Donkey's braying and Puss' oily smugness.
For new characters, viewers get the mildly entertaining Rumpelstiltskin (voice of Walt Dohm), who has an amusing collection of wigs; a coven of interchangeable witches; a cell of resistance-fighter ogres; and a pied piper who bewitches rats, witches and ogres with his rock 'n' roll flute (among the deadliest of all musical weapons).
Shrek 4 is available in a 3-D version. I saw it in 2-D and really, there were only a few scenes that were intentionally created for the extra dimension (flying by broomstick, the occasional object in the face). Much of the film is dark -- that is, shot in the forest, an underground lair or a dimly lit castle -- which often doesn't translate well to 3-D. This isn't such a great movie that it's worth springing for the 3-D surcharge, so why not spend the extra bucks at McDonald's? The pot-bellied, out-of-shape Shrek is still the star of the current Happy Meals.