The witless Shrek films attempt the sort of humor that probably shames the creators of The Simpsons and South Park, like Sleeping Beauty rising suddenly from a narcoleptic power nap and yelling out, “Who dat?!” By referencing Bringing Down the House, Shrek the Third further exemplifies how this execrable franchise dorkily scrapes the bottom of our collective pop-cultural barrel. The inane agenda of these movies is to foist trite moral lessons upon children through wonderless computer animation and a catalog of songs that Gen Xers have been playing on their iPods in the last six months. Less belligerent in its audience pandering than its predecessors (less fart jokes, less homophobic subtext, and—thank Jesus—less squawking from Eddie Murphy), Shrek the Third may not give haters a migraine, but its lobotomized sense of comic brinkmanship is still without fun. These films have never been pleasurable to look at, and when they are (as in the attention-grubbing eyes of Puss in Boots), manipulation is their predictably cheap stock-in-trade.
After Shrek’s father-in-law croaks in the first of only two funny sequences in the film (the second involves the Gingerbread “Bionic” Man, Pinocchio, and Three Pigs playing dumb during a hastily contrived tea party), the green ogre (Mike Myers) refuses to be Far Far Away’s new king, sailing to a nearby high school to find the next in line, some geek named Artie (Justin Timberlake) whose relationship to Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and her family is never explained. Meanwhile, the villains of all our favorite fairy tales—at the command of Prince Charming (Rupert Everett)—take over Far Far Away because “our side has not been told.” Happily N’Ever After already played this same exact postmodern card, but Shrek the Third also suggests that good girls like Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), Snow White (Amy Poehler), and Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) are also mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.
Like Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third is an experiment in excess. The only thing there is more of than corny, market-tested jokes are tepid sermons—all of them plainly, uninterestingly, almost randomly laid out. The story’s feminist homily (fairy tale sisters doing it for themselves!) isn’t noxious per se, giving way as it does to an amusing sequence in which Snow White uses the animals that typically flock around her in gross rapture against the evil trees (a lazy Return of the King rip) that now guard the Far Far Away castle’s gates. But this message of empowerment is callously regarded by the filmmakers, thus negated, when it’s suddenly tossed aside to make room for more harping on Shrek’s issues with becoming a new father. In the end, it’s really the male’s feelings that take precedent, and this is how the Shrek franchise continues to fail at truly giving the finger at the hegemonic bent of fairy tales. At least Donkey remains a total jackass. Why, for example, is he so interested in Puss in Boots’s explanation of the birds and the bees if some sort of nasty, acrobatic bump-in-grind wasn’t responsible for producing the adorably mixed lot of children he had with his dragon mate? Until the next round, the latest Shrek film continues to clarify nothing.