Virtually anything with a "4" after it's name is an exercise in disappointment - it's a sure sign of a tradition being carried on too long. In books and films (though not television, where a fourth season often means a show hitting its creative stride), it's generally an idea stretched too thin, characters with nowhere left to go, and plots that feel forced.
So, knowing that, why did I go to Shrek 4, a/k/a Shrek: This Has Gone On Too Long?
I have to admit, it's mostly the trailer. With its scattershot jokes at all sorts of modern, up to the minute trends and refusal to follow the fairy tale formulas, Shrek films were a somewhat subversive delight, the mass marketing of jaded cultural cynicism (a near perfect contradiction). And occasionally - more in the first two than the second two - the randy bits of humor wer enough to overlook the safe, reined in parts, and the fairly threadbare plotting that barely held it together.
Shrek: Forever After has little of the payoff of the others. It's not that the cultural commentary isn't there... it's just clear that no one, especially, tried very hard.(which is especially unfair to Eddie Murphy's still inspired turn as Donkey - all that puffed up showmanship has nowhere to go). But, in retrospect, the latest Shrek doesn't necessarily sit all that far from the others: and perhaps the real problem with the whole series is that the Shrek films have never, ever believed in real magic.
[And though I rarely do this, I feel it's only fair to say in this case, the review deserves a Spoiler Alert. I'm going to bring it key plot points of all four films]
For all the fantastical elements in the four films, the Shrek series hinges, film after film, on denigrating magical solutions. Potions, spells, wands, wishes, curses... all of these items have served, mainly, as the creators of problems that must be solved for the ragtag band of main characters. Indeed, Shrek himself is marked by his use of brute force to overcome his opponents - invariably he has to smack, or squash, or otherwise battle his opponent - some wielder of magic powers - into submission.
This leads to a kind of curious messaging underlying the stories - a faith in good triumphing over evil... but a matching disrespect for the power of wishes, dreams, and fantasy to brighten, or improve our lives. Nothing good, the films suggest, comes from trying to go beyond established boundaries, or creatively try to end-run problems. Face them, thwack them if you must... but creativity, often, is not rewarded. If it isn't beaten... it's lampooned.
Whether it's Fiona's curse in the first film (which, ultimately is overcome by making her not a pretty Princess, but, in fact, another ogre), or the Fairy Godmother and her deceptive use of magic in the second, or the current films bad deal with Rumpelstiltskin, across the Shrek series, it's the bad characters who rely on magic, and always to achieve bad ends.
And in this way, I'd argue, the films have all been a fun romp - more fun, I think, than many reviewers want to admit - but with a sort of sad, or dismaying aftertaste; it's fun as it unfolds... but the net effect is to sledgehammer home, often unsubtly, that one is better off never having dared to try and change anything at all.
I mentioned something similar to this a while back, about my odd love/not love feelings for The Wizard of Oz. But not until this latest Shrek installment did it occur to me that the point of popular entertainments, especially aimed at kids... may actually serve to argue against the wild outreaches of dreams and creativity, as bad things to be feared. And that we, rooting for our heroes in these stories, should want in the end, as they want, nothing more than to never leave home again.
Shrek: Forever After suffers, mainly, from the labor to try and wring yet another set of plot developments out of established characters with finished stories. And it relies, heavily and mostly painfully, on the conceit of essentially spending most of the film as if much of the precious three never happened, thanks to the aforementioned Rumpelstiltskin and his deal with Shrek to give Shrek a day free from the bounds of his familiar, dull routine with Fiona and the kids. Of course, the trade off is for Shrek to give away his existence all together (believe me, it's not much more explained than that in the picture), and he wanders into a world where he was never born, where ogres fight a nonstop battle with Rumpelstiltskin, now ruler of Far Far Away and his band of witches.
As before, what ziz the film gets from its premise is a certain kind of in-jokiness about current culture; Rumpel...blah blah blah has set up the castle as a constant nightclub party, and it's cute enough, ensconced in his own VIP section and all. But the joke kind of lays there, going nowhere, in part because the character isn't all that well developed, and in looks and tone harks back to that annoying redhead in The Incredibles who's the "Master Villain" of the piece, all resentments and power questing and mean to puppies. It's all very one note and unsympathetic, and doesn't provide much in the way of real tension. His vision of an alternative future basically has no appeal at all.
The main voices go through their paces well enough - the best bits probably goes to Puss In Boots, in this alternative reality fat and tamed and comfy as Fiona's pet. It's cute - with the usual knowing nod to cat behaviors - but that joke too goes flat and nowhere fast (it doesn't help that "he's fat!" amounts to the whole shtick).
Similarly wasted is a subplot about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, with his Dial-a-flute disco machine that sets anyone he selects dancing off to oblivion. It seems promising... but isn't, and the reliance on the dancing, which also seems promising, mostly feels like timewasting filler, thrown in for desperation.
Still, what ultimately makes Shrek 4 so dismal is that, in the end, it slugs you more forcefully than the first three with that anti-magic, anti-exploration notion of living a life within all sorts of boundaries and constrictions. It's somehow wrong, the film suggests, to even raise the issue of being unhappy or stuck or feeling in a rut, Just be grateful where you are... or things will get much worse. If that's all anyone can look forward to, I ask you... what's forever for?