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‘Shrek’ loses steam in ‘Third’ film

Running low on jokes, filmmakers desperately turn to the Camelot legend. By John Hartl

Shrek, a sweet-natured ogre whose rancid greenish color suggests a poorly adjusted color television set, has become the hero of the most successful fractured fairy tale in film history.

The original “Shrek,” which won the first Academy Award for best animated feature, set several box-office records in 2001. The 2004 sequel drew much larger audiences, eventually landing in the No. 3 spot on the all-time top-10 list of moneymakers, right behind “Titanic” and “Star Wars.” Too bad it lacked the freshness of the original.

“Shrek the Third,” which is competing at the box office this month with third installments of “Spider-Man” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” may have trouble maintaining that popularity. The slide in quality this time is steep. The franchise, which desperately turns to the Camelot legend for inspiration, is clearly facing an identity crisis. Even the opening, in which the DreamWorks logo is followed by storm clouds, seems ominous.

Shrek (Mike Myers) doesn’t want to be Shrek, at least not King Shrek, now that his froggy father-in-law (John Cleese) has croaked and left him ruling the land of Far Far Away. Shrek would rather be his slobbery self and hand over his kingly duties to Fiona’s wimpish relative, Arthur/Artie (Justin Timberlake). Merlin (Eric Idle) makes an appearance and there are even cameo roles for Guinevere and Lancelot.

But the kingdom will not easily go to Arthur, who is required to fight for the crown with wicked Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who has radicalized the peasants, the witch from “Snow White” and several other monsters. Seldom has the potential for a coup d’etat seemed less urgent.

Still, if “2” could outdraw “1,” perhaps “Third” has a chance to satisfy those who have stuck with the series from the beginning. It’s as eager to please as the first two films, and the central characters are often just as endearing. But the first film is looking more and more like a unique achievement.

The most noticeable missing element in “Shrek 2” was the visual wit of the original. The characters seemed blander, less outrageous, less three-dimensional. And no villain could replace the first film’s wonderfully ridiculous Lord Farquaad (voice by John Lithgow), who looked like a trash-compacted Shakespeare with a 5 o’clock shadow.

The plot of “2” also lacked the simplicity and perverse purpose of “Shrek,” which turned everything upside down by transforming an ogre into a hero and a princess into a dumpling. “Shrek 2,” which played with the drawbacks of “happily ever after,” had a different, less immediately compelling agenda.

It also couldn’t match the wicked sendups of Disney icons (Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White) that dominated the original film. In their place, “2” made references to “Flashdance,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and other unrelated movies aimed at an older crowd.

And whereas the first “Shrek” made surprisingly adroit use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” the second one tried too hard with David Bowie’s “Changes” and other obvious or less-than-inspired choices.

“Shrek the Third,” co-directed by Chris Miller and Raman Hui (replacing the original directors, Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson), is a cluttered, uneasy mixture of “1” and “2.” While it revives Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) and others as accomplices to the heroine, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), the screenplay (by Miller and several others) fails to provide them with much definition. Ian McShane appears as Capt. Hook, Cody Cameron is Pinocchio, but they’re throwaway parts.

And the song list is hopeless. The king’s funeral is tastelessly attached to Wings’ James Bond anthem, “Live and Let Die,” a dance is half-heartedly staged to a song from “A Chorus Line,” and there’s even a spot singled out for the terribly dated “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

Julie Andrews, wasted as the voice of the queen, is heard wistfully humming a few notes from “Mary Poppins.” Perhaps she’s remembering when she used to be offered roles worthy of her talents. Much easier to take are the classical excerpts from Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Elgar — all of which work rather well in the context of the new film.

Does Shrek still have the appeal he did three years ago? The New York Times’ editorial page recently claimed that he’s “hugely popular with the preteen and preschool set,” while scolding the promotional team for “Shrek the Third” for pushing high-calorie junk foods. (At the same time, the Times pointed out, Shrek has been appearing in public service ads that call attention to childhood obesity.)

But a child-oriented phenomenon like “Shrek” can have a short shelf life. Just ask the creators of “My Little Pony.” Or the voice of Shrek himself, Mike Myers, who isn’t the household name he was when the first film appeared six years ago. (“The Cat in the Hat” didn’t help.)

The trick is reinventing the formula to appeal to more than one age group. Disney and Pixar are masters at it, and the animators behind “Shrek the Third” occasionally mine that vein successfully. An episode in which Shrek and Fiona try to feel comfortable in formal dress has some charm, and so does the exchange of personalities between Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy), both victims of a magic spell.

Banderas and Murphy come closest to capturing the goofy spirit of the series when it wasn’t yet a franchise. Whenever the new movie slows down, they’re usually around to kick it back into gear. The same cannot be said for Timberlake, whose junior King Arthur is so whiny that his attempts at inspirational speechmaking never convince.

The filmmakers could be trying to create a fresh character arc for Arthur. Despite some evidence that Timberlake and the writers were looking for a new approach to Arthur, it just doesn’t click. Even the animators seem defeated by Arthur, who lacks visual distinction and moves quite awkwardly.

Perhaps the lesson is: If you’re going to do a Camelot movie, do a Camelot movie. “Shrek the Third” is stranded somewhere between supplying a faithful sequel and striking out into quite different territory.