While Pixar are almost critically bulletproof (in the animation arms race, Toy Story 3 is like a megaton bomb, a final sky-scorching explosion after a salvo which included WALL-E and Up), Dreamworks have been more hit and miss with their arsenal. But with How To Train Your Dragon and now Shrek 4 on their books, there’s still hope that this is not just a one-horse race.
Shrek (Mike Myers) has become a family ogre with seemingly everything he wants in life. He has a beautiful wife, lovely kids, best friends that drop in to see him and the adoration and minor celebrity of the town of Far Far Away, which he previously used to enjoy terrorising.
But like Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and Shrek dreams of one day where he could be his old curmudgeonly self and escape his pleasant but mundane life.
Enter Rumpelstiltskin (wonderfully voiced by Walt Dohrn), a trailer trash magician who specialises in contracts that have more than a suspicious amount of fine print. He believes that Shrek robbed him of the throne all those years ago and is looking for the opportunity to seize power again.
Tricking Shrek into signing away the day of his birth in exchange for one of the good old days, Shrek is transported It’s A Wonderful Life-style to an alternative universe where he was never born, Rumpelstiltskin is King and he only has one day to get true love’s kiss or be stuck there forever.
That’s easier said than done as in this world Fiona (Cameron Diaz) escaped from her prison on her own and now leads an underground cadre of ogre freedom fighters, Puss (Antonio Banderas) has allowed his previous skills to run to fat, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) simply has no idea who Shrek is.
The first Shrek’s humour lay in deconstructing and subverting familiar fairytale clichés but also by developing solid characters that we could get to know and love. Shrek 3 made the huge mistake of relying on a barrage of lazy pop culture references while neglecting character and plot. Thankfully, Shrek 4 steers the series back on the right track and reminds us what was great about the first two instalments – great characters and a compelling story.
The result is frequently funny and the set pieces are impressive (Shrek escaping Rumpel’s court on the back of high-jacked broomstick is a particular highlight and makes the most of the ubiquitous 3D effects) but there’s still a nagging feeling that Shrek eventually will have to return the humdrum familiarity of Far Far Away.
If anything this shows that the franchise has run out of ideas – there’s no where left for the series to go. Shrek 4 is a welcome last effort and atones for the sins of the third instalment but this really should be the last chapter. They think it’s all ogre? Hopefully it is now.