Where is Shrek?

The first Shrek came out of nowhere, an offbeat fractured fairy tale with a story suitable for kids and jokes aimed at adults. Shrek 2 contained more of the same, particularly the latter, with an emphasis on MORE. The story was cruder, with images and humor that I wouldn't want my kids to see, and overbearingly bloated with gags, as the writers stuffed aural and visual pop culture references in like Mark Mangino at a buffet. Watching the sequel felt like being bludgeoned with a comic hammer that screamed Look what we can do! That progression leads to Shrek the Third, batting second in the summer of the sequel, featuring an underwhelming trailer that threatened to continue the slide of the series. (Audio review here.)

Not unexpectedly, this is the worst of the three, but the reasons for its limited appeal are surprising. The creators heeded the complaints about Shrek 2 containing too many psuedo-clever jokes, which is good. Specific allusions like Mission: Impossible or Lord of the Rings have been largely replaced by general parodies of events like high school life and Broadway musicals. This alteration in humor is welcome but too severe, stripping the franchise of its definitive irreverent nature, which is bad. Shrek 3 swings the comedy pendulum from the in-your-face extreme of the second past the moderation of the first to a unpleasantly safe converse. It frequently feels more like a less saccharine Disney movie than a Shrek movie, complete with a schmaltzy moral at the end.

That's not to say that the movie isn't funny. The writing occasionally crackles; excellent comic timing is pervasive; and the sundry offbeat appearances of noteworthy characters like Captain Hook and Snow White are still entertaining. But on the whole everything feels restrained, like a kid who was reprimanded for doing something wrong and is now afraid to do much of anything. As much as I didn't like all of the prequels' base humor, this one needs more of it. The less flamboyant nature of the movie also diminishes its appeal to children, as does the metamorphosis of Shrek himself from rambunctious troublemaker to calmer father figure, a transformation that makes him more accessible to adults than kids.

In the end, the movie ends up feeling much like the main character. Just as Shrek himself feels that the confinements of the crown prevent him from being himself, the movie feels muzzled, neutered by knee-jerk reactions to the second movie. It isn't gratingly bad, but neither is it actively good. Shrek the Third (good title, by the way) merely idles its way through a rightfully short eighty-seven minutes.

Bottom Line: Third verse, different from the first (and second). Not quite the same, and notably worse. 5 of 10.