Thursday, June 28, 2007

Shrek The Third: Recommended For The Burping And Farting Of The Ogre Babies. And The Wet Cat

The first two Shrek films were masterpieces of their kind, but they also carried the seeds of their own destruction. They were knowing, and designed to appeal to adults as much as kids. They did this by playing around with the mythology of fairytales, and particularly the Disney versions of these stories. They were sweet and cynical at the same time, which is a hard recipe to repeat, as those viewers who were attracted by the cynicism will, most likely, be repelled by the familiarity of a film franchise. This could have some small impact on the success of the film in theatres, as adults may be marginally less inclined to buy tickets, but it may not matter, because – unlike the Disney movies at the time of their release – today’s children’s films are watched endlessly on DVD. Though they were amongst the highest-grossing theatrical releases of all time, the DVDs of Shreks 1 and 2 have sold 90 million copies between them. Familiarity, in the end, is the point.
And whatever else it is, Shrek the Third very familiar. The jolly green ogre – a benign cross between Gordon Brown, Alex Salmond and Dumbo the elephant, voiced by Mike Myers – finds himself married to a broody Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whose father, the frog king (John Cleese), is on the verge of croaking. Meanwhile, on the dinner theatre circuit, the charmless Prince Charming (Prince Charles, channelled through Barbie’s former escort Ken by Rupert Everett) is acting out his grievances in front of a restless audience of peasants.
The kingdom which Shrek is keen to avoid inheriting is Far Far Away, a cartoon spoof of Hollywood, in which – for example - Versace becomes Versarchery. On its first airing, this joke seemed mildly subversive, particularly when allied with Shrek’s mischievous treatment of Disney’s moral code. Third time around, the joke feels more laboured, not least because Shrek’s status as a happy underdog has been undermined by the social mobility he acquired as a by-product of two happy endings. And, when you put aside the diversion of all those snarky in-jokes, Shrekworld has a fairly conventional moral code itself, in which everyone feels like an underdog, and ogres are beautiful in their own way. Shrek the Third goes a little further than this, and has a Message for the kids (roughly speaking: be yourself, and don’t worry what others say). At the screening I attended, these moments were accompanied by an increased restlessness among the infant audience.
The adult audience is targeted with jokes about Shrek’s reluctance to become a father, including a dream sequence in which he is overrun by mini-ogres, and an emetic moment in which a baby vomits in his face for a very long time.
The film’s Journey is prompted by Shrek’s decision to shirk the responsibilities of becoming king by tracking down the other king’s son, Artie, a dweeb (Justin Timberlake) who is being educated in the art of teenage resentment in Worcestershire. (This storyline suggests that Far Far Away has a peculiarly progressive constitution. In other fairytale monarchies, such as the United Kingdom, Shrek – as the husband of the monarch’s daughter - would have no fear of being crowned).
The school (motto “Just say nay!”) is an Olde Worlde American high school, in which Artie is busy being shunned. He is an obnoxious kid, made worse by the promise of power. He tells the school assembly: “I’m building my city, people, on rock’n’roll.”
It’s not as simple as that, of course. On encountering the dithering wizard Merlin (Eric Idle) – retired from magic after a “level three fatigue” – Donkey and Puss In Boots accidentally swap bodies, giving the animators the challenge of drawing a cat that thinks it is an ass, and vice versa. In another corner of the kingdom, Prince Charming is rounding up all the other fairytale losers – Captain Hook (Ian McShane) the Ugly Sisters, the Three Blind Mice – and asking: “Who wants their happily ever after?” The losers run riot, Ye Olde Bootery is turned into Hooters, and the Gingerbread Man sees his life flashing before him. The ladies of the court burn their bras and embrace girl power, Captain Hook discovers his inner daffodil grower, and – well, you can guess the rest. The best bit is a wet cat.
It’s all good fun, even if the story is less impressive than the burping and farting of the ogre babies, and the soundtrack music is more conservative than previously. Stick around for the closing titles, in which Puss in Boots and Donkey impersonate Sly and the Family Stone.

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