VIDEO: Watch the trailer for Shrek the Third
From its humble, elegant origins as a slim children’s book by William Steig, Shrek has metastasized into a symptom of and metaphor for the entertainment industry and modern culture in general. Like some infernal fairy tale (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” say), it has multiplied into a vast franchise that in its third installment — reproduced by first-time director Chris Miler in CGI animation, the ugliest and most expensive filmmaking process in the world — includes the voices of superstars past and present plus Larry King, Regis Philbin, and two former members of Monty Python. The cast of characters includes every kiddie character from Captain Hook to Sleeping Beauty, all now forever ruined for future generations of children. It dispenses more bodily fluids than Hostel II, more bad jokes than Larry King, Regis Philbin, and Monty Python combined, and more rancid platitudes than you’ll hear from the presidential campaigns of both parties.
It doesn’t stop there. From the screen it spreads out into the world, into merchandising deals ranging from an army of toys to promotions for McDonald’s, Snickers, Pepsi, and Cheetos and on to the spectacle of Shrek himself becoming the spokesman for the president’s campaign to end obesity in children.
No wonder the simple monstrosity just wants to retire to his swamp. (Not so his voice, Mike Myers, who has forsaken genuine filmmaking for this sinecure.) No wonder he has a nightmare, the most lucid moment in the film, in which he has spawned countless infant ogres — insipid likenesses of himself resembling that hideous troll fad of a few years back — that surge like a tsunami and wipe away whatever mordant humor, innocence, or truth Steig’s creation might have had.
That’s part of the story in Shrek the Third. Wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), former feisty beauty and now sanctimonious ogre scold, has just told our hero that he’s going to have a baby. He has other commitment problems as well. The King, Fiona’s father (John Cleese), who was already convalescing after being transformed into a frog, has croaked (I’m surprised they didn’t use that gag), and Shrek is next in the line. (Why not Fiona? Maybe this series isn’t as female-empowering as it pretends to be.) So he heads out to find an obscure relative, Arthur (Justin Timberlake), to take his place on the throne. As an abused wimp in a fairy-tale high school (new demographic!) Arthur offers the film fresh opportunities to spin its self-actualization fantasies. In the meantime, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) takes note of the rulership void (a comment on the Bush lame-duck presidency?) and returns to take over Far Far Away with an army of storybook villains.
Well, more power to him. Nonetheless, some of this crap still appeals to me. Like the cookie, the Gingerbread Man: he’s funny. Sometimes. Or Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas): he’s so cute! He’s just like my cat. And who doesn’t enjoy a Happy Meal now and then.
Mostly, though, I admire the dignity of John Cleese, who collects his check and manages to die in the first 10 minutes. No more sequels for him! No such luck for the rest of us. Shrek’s nightmare of the infinitely reproducing beast of vapid entertainment is the reality shared by all.