Movies: Shrek forever after ****
(G, General release)
Based on the stories of William Steig and inspired by the classic middle European fairy tales, the first Shrek film burst into the 2001 blockbuster season like a breath of fresh air. The combination of beautifully realised comic characters and familiar stories knowingly subverted was irresistible to both adults and children, and Eddie Murphy's Donkey was one of the funniest cartoon creations ever.
For many Shrek 2 was even better, but by the time Shrek the Third came along in 2007 the carefully crafted joke was wearing a little thin.
This all made one worry that this last instalment, Shrek Forever After, would
be a bridge too far. Happily, the grumpy green ogre has rediscovered his mojo to some extent in a breezy story that owes a great deal to It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek is now married to his ogre princess Fiona and is the father of three bouncing green monsters, but he's not as thrilled with his lot as he should be.
Where once he scared the villagers half to death, he's now a tourist attraction: tour buses stop outside his house and small boys ask to have their pictures taken with him. After Shrek loses the cool at one of his children's birthdays, he and Fiona have a row and he storms off in disgust, yearning for his old life as a care-free bachelor ogre.
Unfortunately for Shrek, a scheming double-dealer called Rumpelstiltskin overhears him and sees his chance to take control of the kingdom. After plying Shrek with cocktails and roasted rat, Rumpelstiltskin offers him the chance to spend a day as a responsibility-free scary ogre if he signs a magic contract in which he agrees to give away one of his childhood days in return.
It's a trick, of course, and once Shrek has signed on the dotted line he realises that the day he's given away is the one when he was born. In other words, Shrek doesn't exist, which means that Fiona wasn't rescued by him, and Rumpelstiltskin has taken over the palace and rules the kingdom with the help of an army of flying witches.
When Shrek runs into Donkey, the beast doesn't even recognise him, and neither does Fiona, who has become the fierce amazonian leader of an ogre-resistance movement. After they've made friends again, he and Donkey work out that the only way to save the day and restore the natural order is for Shrek to kiss Fiona. But she, not surprisingly, isn't all that interested, and time is against them because, as Rumpelstiltskin helpfully points out, when this day ends Shrek will disappear forever.
You get the idea, and the simple moral point: only when he's lost everything does Shrek, George Bailey-like, begin to realise how lucky he was. It's not subtle, but it does fine as a frame on which to hang some very funny jokes and scenes. A small, barking boy is the star of the ill-fated birthday party; the sinister musical power of the Pied Piper results in some furious dance numbers; and Rumpelstiltskin (as voiced by Walt Dohrn) is a satisfyingly grandiose villain.
The main characters are as effective as ever. Mike Myers does his usual solid job of bringing Shrek to life, and Antonio Banderas has fun as Puss in Boots, who's let himself go and become a pampered and overweight house cat. It's Eddie Murphy, though, who steals the show once again.
It would be best after this if Dreamworks stay true to their word and call time on the Shrek franchise, to let their highly marketable orge go out on a relative high.