Shrek Forever After – Cinema’s Hardest-Working Sequel?

So, Shrek Forever After isn’t really current, nor is it old enough to let this be an actual retrospective. Why write about it now? In truth, what happened was I completely skipped out on this series-ender in theaters and only recently wound up watching it. Paul reviewed it when it came out, and wasn’t too taken with it. Fair enough. However…

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sequel like this one.

Most sequels fall into one of two broad camps. Either there’s been a precedent of quality, and the sequel manages to be even better (like the second movie of the Spider-man or Terminator franchises), or there’s a irreversible dropoff in quality (like, um, the third movie of the Spider-man or Terminator franchises).

Shrek Forever After is an oddity. The movies ahead of it were declining, but it single-handedly makes the entire series better. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a sequel pull of that trick. How’d they do that?

Well, first it’s important to take a look at the trajectory of the series. Briefly…

The first Shrek is a bona-fide classic. It helped pioneer the meta-comedy movement we’re currently stuck in, and basically created a template for roughly half Dreamworks Animation projects released since. Despite being copied over and over, the first movie still feels fresh and surprisingly genuine. Even now, a decade later, it’s obvious why it was such a hit.

The sequels saw diminishing creative returns. Shrek 2 was funnier than the first, with the highest joke-per-second ratio of the series and the memorable addition of Puss in Boots. Despite that, it’s not as emotionally true. A good movie, but one that was simply missing something.

Shrek the Third caused most people — including myself — to give up on the series. Yes, there were still some legitimately hilarious bits, but the spaces between them felt longer and duller than they had been before. Prince Charming was only adequate the first time-around, and bringing him back as the main villain only highlighted his shortcomings as a character.

Even worse, the series itself had completely lost the qualities that made us love it. Its crass humor was still technically present, but you could sense the filmmakers’ hearts not being in it anymore. And the first movie has a real mean streak running through it that had completely disappeared by the Third. The clincher? Shrek himself turned from an abrasive ogre to a dull domestic househusband.

Yep, exactly what I want from a raunchy comedy about ogres.

Enter Shrek Forever After.

Right away, it’s clear that the filmmakers had heard the complaints about Shrek the Third. Forever After’s main plot, cribbed in part from It’s a Wonderful Life, effectively shows us what the world of the first movie would look like if Shrek hadn’t been working for its betterment. Unfortunately for Shrek, his absence cleared the path for a tyrannical despot to enslave the population and destroy the ecosystem.

Basically, he and Scar would tie for “worst animated ruler ever.”

He even made Antonio Banderas unsexy.

Forever After also brings back motifs of exile and enslavement, showing us an ogre resistance force in the forest, and major characters reduced to fighting as gladiators or dragging prisoners across the wasteland. This recalls the treatment of the fairy-tale creatures from the first Shrek that set that story apart.

In effect, the universe-altering device literally reverses the progressively lightening tone of the series. Cool.

Shrek himself also directly confronts problems with the previous movies. One of the major issues with the Third is the way Shrek — whose very name means “terror” — has been essentially reduced to a prim-and-proper royal who happens to look like an ogre. He exists as a mere shell of the creature who brushed his teeth with bugs and wiped his ass with storybooks.

Probably not a great time for this picture.

Furthermore, Shrek and Fiona are back at each other’s throats. Gone are the scenes of domestic squabbling; returned are the scenes of outright antagonism and occasional violence. While the domestic stuff isn’t bad on its own, it lacks the raunchy undertones of the relationship from the first movie.

What about the villain? None of the baddies in the series had been able to top Lord Farquaad — ironically. Why? Aside from his obvious perversions and height issues, Farquaad’s evil doings extended beyond Shrek. One of the biggest problems with the Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming was that both of them were mainly gunning for the main character. Whereas, Farquaad had every fairy-tale creature in his sights in addition to Fiona and Shrek.

Rumplestiltskin, in a way, is a combination of all the Shrek villains. He’s somewhat metrosexual (Do people still use that term? Probably not), though not as much as Charming. He’s a practitioner of magic and maker of deals, much like Fairy Godmother. And he’s an egomaniac with height problems, like Farquaad.

But most importantly, he brings villainy back to Farquaad’s grand scale. It seems that nearly everybody winds up on the raw end of a deal with Rumplestiltskin. His madness has driven the entire kingdom to ruin. He lazily kills off the witches working for him. Heck, his first onscreen act is to make vital characters from Shrek 2 literally vanish into thin air.

And, he’s funny.

From the things I’ve said so far, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shrek Forever After was simply a rehash of the first movie. In a way, it is — it sends Shrek back to the isolated, cranky world he used to live in.

But this is a more mature Shrek. He realizes that (uh, spoiler alert?) the life he used to lead was unfulfilling; that adapting to a society and founding a family are, perhaps, even more worthwhile pursuits than doing whatever you want, whenever you want to. In this way, Shrek Forever After successfully has its cake and eats it, too. There’re not many movies I can say that about.

Pic sort of related.

So is this the best sequel ever? Of course not. It’s not even as good as the first movie, and the Shrek series still isn’t up to the standards of Pixar’s typical output. Shrek Forever After may not have fixed everything, but its willingness to address the series’ problems so directly made the four-movie cycle feel like it was going somewhere all along.

Sequels upon sequels are a given these days, but it’s nice to see one that brings a bit of effort back to a flagging franchise. Maybe there is hope for the Hollywood sequel machine after all…

… or, maybe not.

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  1. I agree! I was amazed by the quality of Shrek 4 after Shrek 3 was quite a sleeper! So now I just pretend 3 didn’t happened and just watch 1, 2, & 4.

  2. I didn’t like the ending of this one. They spend the whole movie crafting Shrek’s relationship to new badass Fiona, and then discard that whole world to go back to the house-husband Shrek.

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