Jokes and jabs fly fast and furious in 'Shrek the Third,' a welcome addition to the star-studded series
When the names of the stars doing the voices for "Shrek the Third" appear merrily at the end, some cheer is in order. Mike Myers as Shrek , Eddie Murphy as Donkey , Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots : They're good and hammy at what they do. But obviously the real stars are the hundreds of artists and technicians who get this story told with so much visual accuracy and wit. People like Guillaume Aretos , who oversaw the production design; Tim Cheung , who headed the character animation; and all the folks they worked with.
Never mind that their names might not mean as much to an audience as those of super-exes Cameron Diaz (she does Princess Fiona's voice) and Justin Timberlake (he joins the cast as a young King Arthur ). The movie wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable without the participation of the way-below-the-title names. In-jokes and jabs at the bland conventions of classic and recent Disney animation are this series' stock in trade, but physical and facial realism are the biggest achievements in DreamWorks 's fractured fairy tales.
This new one finds its big green ogre not interested at all in royal life or fatherhood. When Fiona tells Shrek she's pregnant, he has a terrific, grotesque nightmare in which he's attacked by millions of Shrek babies. He'd rather be back in his shabby hut. But after froggy King Harold (John Cleese ) falls ill, Shrek temporarily takes on official royal duties. In a magnificently prolonged deathbed sequence, he leaves his crown to Shrek . He doesn't want it, though, forcing the poor old frog to come up with a plan B before he croaks. It's a teenager named Arthur , whom Shrek , Donkey , and Puss hit the road to fetch.
The journey is not very exciting, but the destinations are inspired. Arthur -- or Artie , as he prefers -- attends a medieval school that's like a combination of Hogwarts and Ridgemont High . And at some point a crusty Merlin (Eric Idle ) shows up and does some magic that has amusing consequences for Donkey and Puss.
Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett ), still smarting that Shrek married his girl, has convinced a mob of defeated storybook villains (Captain Hook , the Evil Queen , etc.) that they should avenge themselves. So they nastily descend upon the Far Far Away kingdom, which apparently is located on the Paramount Studios lot. Fiona and the queen (Julie Andrews ) are swiftly locked up, along with Snow White (Amy Poehler), Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri ), and Cinderella (Amy Sedaris ), Fiona's more typical storybook counterparts, who've been reimagined as ungrateful yuppie snobs. Charming's terrorism culminates in the mounting of a musical production that demonstrates what Andrew Lloyd Webber might do with a Disney version of Rapunzel .
Needless to say, the overall surprise of the original "Shrek," which was based on William Steig's beautifully told and drawn book, can't be recaptured. The movie was a wholesale rejection of glossy cartoon cheer and the general Disneyification of fairy tales, and, seemingly, came from nowhere. Its weave of barbed pop-culture jokes and emotional sincerity had been available on "The Simpsons" for years, but "Shrek " made it seem workable at the movies. The second installment, "Shrek 2," unbraided the gags from the feeling, tipping the balance to gleeful cynicism, which, while fun to watch, was discomforting. It seemed to come to the filmmakers much more easily than the story's emotional dimensions.
With "Shrek the Third ," the series still favors the jokes -- Led Zeppelin , Heart , and Wings songs are put to amusing use. But director Chris Miller and the credited writers (there are four) are determined that if these films are to be a collection of riffs and gags, with a sweet afterthought for a finale, then they ought to be very good. And, largely, these are.
Of course, many of them come at the expense of the title star. The movie is stolen from him by everyone from Murphy's jackass and Banderas's kitty cat to Pinocchio (Cody Cameron ) and the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon ), who might be this series's funniest creation. Because of Shrek's ubiquity as a marketing force, he seems overly familiar, as do his parenting and self-esteem woes. But his yielding the stage is an act of generosity that allows you to savor the smaller things. So while there is some pleasure in Shrek's life struggles, it's the sight and sound of a dying frog that I won't soon forget.