If Pixar’s Toy Story movies connect with the child in all of us, DreamWorks’ Shrek pictures are aimed squarely at our inner adolescent. I suspect I may be more in touch with my inner child than my inner adolescent.
I enjoyed the original Shrek three years ago, but have never felt the need to see it again, whereas I have rewatched the Toy Story movies any number of times. I also enjoyed Shrek 2, but I suspect that we will all see Shrek 3 and possibly Shrek 4 before I get around to catching Shrek 2 again.
The first Shrek was a cheerfully crude but ultimately warm-hearted fairy-tale satire that began with evil Lord Farquaad incarcerating and deporting fairy-tale creatures ("Possessed toy," notes a henchman clinically in his logbook as he takes Pinocchio into custody), and wound up with the title ogre (Mike Myers), cast against type as a knight-errant, rescuing and finally marrying the beautiful princess (Cameron Diaz). The climax involved a Beauty and the Beast transformation, though with a twist that no one saw coming, unless they were paying attention.
Shrek 2 completes the Beauty and the Beast parallelism by introducing a Gaston-like Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who’s outraged that he was beaten to the punch rescuing the princess. We also meet Fiona’s royal parents, the King and Queen of Far, Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews), and Charming’s mother, a Machiavellian fairy godmother (Jennifer Saunders, "Absolutely Fabulous") who’s got more in common with the Godfather than with the benevolently maternal pixies of Disney’s classic fairy tales.
The filmmakers (a passel of writers and directors, half a dozen in all) aren’t able to recapture either the subversive skewering of fairy-tale sensibilities or the pointed jabs at Disney of the original. This time out, the jokes seem to run more to references and spoofs than send-ups.
Sure, it’s funny that a character looking for someone to get rid of Shrek winds up contracting a very macho Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) — since killing an ogre is precisely what Puss in Boots is known for. But the mischievous wryness isn’t there. And when the kingdom of Far, Far Away turns out to look an awful lot like Hollywood — well, it just doesn’t have the satiric edge of Farquaad’s Magic Kingdom-like castle.
In lieu of witty fairy-tale subversiveness and barbed in-jokes, Shrek 2 inevitably falls back on pop-culture references and movie parodies, which come so thick and fast I’m sure I missed half of them. (In one ten-second window, the film cites From Here to Eternity, The Little Mermaid, and Jaws one after the other.)
This sort of humor is hit and miss, and, as with the original, some of the cultural references seem past their sell-by date, no longer topical but not yet nostalgic. (The original had a dated "Macarena" segment; this time there’s a big "Livin’ la Vida Loca" number.) But a big Ghostbusters gag in the last act attains a kind of goofy grandeur.
Eddie Murphy is still exuberantly funny as sidekick Donkey, and Myers and Diaz are still appealing as the jolly green ogre couple. Best of all is Banderas as Puss, funnier here than he’s been since the original Spy Kids, though unhappily he doesn’t show up till the picture is almost halfway over.
I said above that the Shrek movies are adolescent. Many
parents seem to think that anything animated is automatically
appropriate family fare. Then again, I see children of all ages
being brought to hard
Suffice to say that children young enough to be the target audience for Disney’s Pinocchio don’t need to see a spoof that implies that Pinocchio likes wearing women’s underwear. And that’s only one of a number of cross-dressing jokes, which also include a throwaway line about the big bad wolf in Grandma’s nightgown being "gender-confused," and an inexplicable sight gag involving a deep-voiced male bartender in wicked-stepsister drag (Larry King — yes, that Larry King). If all of this is the price we must pay for this sequel’s reduced level of flatulence and body-function humor, I’d have preferred more flatulence.
Oddly, at a key moment in the rivalry between Shrek and Prince Charming, Shrek seems suddenly to forget that he and Fiona are married. When someone tries to push him away from Fiona, Shrek protests only, "But I love her," inevitably incurring rote nonsense about letting her go if he loves her, because she’ll be happier with someone else, and so on. Why didn’t he at least object that they were married, too?
In the end, though, Shrek 2 not only recaptures the heart of the first film, it goes a bit further. One important supporting character who starts out unsympathetic not only goes on to something like nobility, selflessly sacrificing his own good for that of one he loves, he also becomes a figure of some pathos and tragedy. (Once again the redemptive ending is connected to an easily perceived twist.) And I enjoy the relationship of Shrek and Fiona more than that of the leads in many a romantic comedy.
Visually, Shrek 2 is as gorgeous as the original, though Pixar’s Finding Nemo has raised the bar so high that DreamWorks may be trying to catch up for years to come. (Previews for DreamWorks’ next animated film, Shark Tale, actually featuring a vegetarian shark, make unflattering Finding Nemo comparisons inevitable.)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.