Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Shrek Forever After

It's fair to say Dreamworks' Shrek (taken from William Steig's book) imploded the CGI animation genre from the inside back in 2001. While not an especially memorable breakthrough visually, the knock-out storytelling that was both a parody of saccharine fairy tales and a lovely morality story in its own right secured the film's instant popularity with audiences, one which both tickled the ribs and warmed the cockles. Even Oscar saw fit to reward it in due course.

Then it all started to go slightly down-hill. In Shrek 2 and 3, the star wattage took over and the pop-culture references became as unsavoury as an ogre's mudbath. Always a distant kissing-cousin to market leader Pixar's astonishingly multi-faceted work, the latter day sequels seemed to confirm Dreamworks' worst tendencies; namely, replacing depth with a kind of puerile cynicism.

Thankfully, now that the franchise is facing the music and coming to an end, the studio ups its game and produces the best entry since the first. By restoring the heart through some carefully intricate (though never bewildering) narrative acrobatics, and eliminating the reliance on star voices (the lead villain tellingly isn't voiced by an A-Lister but by Head of Story Walt Dohrn), Shrek finally gets some of its mojo back.

The very mojo that Shrek (Mike Myers) himself is lacking at the outset, stuck in a domestic nightmare of Groundhog Day proportions looking after his kids and harbouring an increasing desire to return to his old anti-social life. Wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) are not best pleased. After erupting in rage at his child's birthday party, he strikes a deal with the devious Rumplestilkskin (voiced with relish by Dohrn) to return to life as a normal ogre for a day. What Rumpel doesn't reveal is his sinister ulterior motive, getting Shrek to sign away the day of his birth, conjuring up another metafictional film comparison as Shrek, George Bailey style, must fight to convince his friends (including Antonio Banderas' now portly Puss in Boots) of his existence, and most importantly, Fiona, of his undying love.

The It's a Wonderful Life device is always a great one for manipulating the audience's emotions and getting them on-board the side of the protagonist. Consequently, the plot-driven dynamics of Shrek Forever After, not to mention Shrek's desparate struggle to convince Fiona of his love before the day is out, lend events a gripping, suspenseful edge, while restoring the backbone long absent since the first film. It's also packed with a delightful kind of incidental detail that shows the filmmakers are again engaging with their own universe; Fiona is now the kick-ass leader of an underground group of rebels, allowing Diaz to revel in her character's pluckier stance, while Dohrn as the delightfully wicked Rumpel is a truly fearsome villain for being able to rewrite the events of the past films at ease.

But, crucially, it's also very, very funny (a killer cameo from the Pied Piper, able to manipulate characters' free-style choices), and genuinely heartwarming. It won't take a genius to see the hint laid down in the title, but it makes it no less touching to finally say goodbye to these characters; nor less satisfying, to see it done so well.

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