Movie Review
Shrek the Third
Director: Chris Miller
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers

i didn't realize until I read a review of Shrek the Third in The New Yorker that the movies are actually based loosely upon a children's book, Shrek!, by William Steig. It's easy for this fact to go unnoticed at this point. Steig's Shrek is mildly at war with the rest of society. He hates the conventional view of happiness because it has never made him happy. Dreamworks’ Shrek is positioned as a socially awkward grump: someone outside of society looking in, and envying the warmth he sees there.

Shrek's literary status enabled his movies to gracefully toe a line between a dramatic story and a parody. He was an outsider, so he could poke fun at fairy tales, even as he found himself amidst one. Shrek the Third, however, begins to forsake the wonder and magic of a fairy tale, choosing instead to supplement the waning series with broad cultural references and awkwardly adult humor.

A movie like Shrek the Third forgets that kid's movies and, perhaps more importantly, fairy tales, used to be very dark creations. Cinderella is a frightening story of a family warped by jealousy. The Lion King, one of the prominent Disney features of my childhood, retells a horrifying story of a murderous power struggle and revenge reminiscent of Hamlet, or even something as primitive as Cain and Abel. What made these stories great was their respect for the audience, not as children, but as human beings who could recognize the power of these universal themes.

The first two Shrek films remained mature in this regard while still peppering the stories with flatulence and slap-stick comedy. They focused on Shrek's character to highlight the bafflement and cynicism he feels towards a negligent and greedy elite class. He's right to feel that way—Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother exude the same corruption and violent frustration they feel over their own impotence, which gave depth to the villains of earlier stories.

Shrek the Third, then, had enormous opportunities. Shrek and Fiona take over power when the king falls ill and quickly passes away. Shrek is uncomfortable in his possession of the throne. The movie had the chance to play again with the power struggles prominent in the first two films. Shrek, stuck in this position with his enemies mostly vanquished, could have his own flirtation with royalty. But the movie avoids that entirely. Shrek instead is frustrated by his own awkwardness, his inability to fit into regal clothing and christen ships properly. He leaves far, far, away to search for Arthur, the other potential heir to the throne, while Prince Charming hatches a plan for his own coup. The villains remain evil, the heroes pure and unaltered from their succession of triumphs from the last two films, and no real surprises emerge.

By making this choice, Shrek the Third is attempting to expand upon another of its themes, social alienation. The problem is this conflict feels tired at this point. Shrek no longer rejects and ridicules society; he's fundamentally become part of it by the time this film begins. He's the king pro tempore, he's happily married, he has a group of quirky friends. In these new conflicts, then, he just appears blandly anxious. Issues like impending fatherhood, which should be a universal conflict, seem whiny and suburban.

To keep the sense of awkwardness alive, then, the movie gropes for new environments in which the characters can comfortably not fit in. Shrek, Donkey, and Puss-In-Boots suddenly end up at a stereotypical American high school to pick up Arthur. Shrek the Third isn't even parodying mythology any more at this point; you see cheerleaders and hot-boxed chariots, but no mention of the sword and the stone is even made. The princesses, all originally beautiful and dignified maidens in their respective stories, gossip cattily with Fiona, snapping at each other with insults about their hairstyles.

This is a startling change in the style of humor of the Shrek films. There is no more satire of the fairy tales themselves, the humor is supposed to be found by transposing modern situations into a medieval context. Stores labeled as “versarchery” and “abercrombie and witch” litter the city streets. Merlin is an ex-hippy who wears Birkenstocks and wool socks while laughing at his own wacky antics.

One has to wonder, then, where lies the substance of the movie. With the absence of fairy tales beyond mere comic devices, the movie ceases to remain one itself. This is the new kind of adult humor that is meant to replace the absence of any real powerful themes. The jealousy and morose rejection that drives Prince Charming and all the villains to rebellion goes horrendously undeveloped. Rather than confront any new and frightening issues, the movie continues to toss gag lines between the stiff motivational speeches Shrek gives at every other scene.

Shrek 4 is already due for release in 2010. A holiday spin-off titled Shrek the Halls is filming right now. A separate film titled Puss in Boots: The Story of an Ogre Killer is also in the works. As Shrek solidifies as a franchise, the movies will probably become more and more tame, containing more cultural references and subversively lewd adult humor with less thematic substance.

At the end of Steig's book, Shrek walks off with his new bride, a princess so putrid and hideous that she is immediately worthy of his affection, to live “horribly ever after.” In Shrek the Third, as Prince Charming faces off against the rest of the characters, he cries, “I still want my happily ever after!” Shrek replies, “sorry, but I've got to keep mine.” The Shrek empire would do well to heed the warnings of its own character, and leave him well enough alone.

Shrek the Third is currently in wide release.

By: Yannick LeJacq
Published on: 2007-06-07
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