The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Shrek the Third

Originally posted 5/28/07
Full review behind the jump

Shrek the Third

: Chris Miller, with co-director Raman Hui
: Story by Andrew Adamson, Screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman and Chris Miller and Aron Warner, based on the book by William Steig
: Aron Warner
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Everett, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Justin Timberlake, Eric Idle

I’m going to share a name with you that is not famous: Carlos M. Rosas. He’s a senior character animator on
Shrek the Third, and so deserves a share of credit. The Shrek franchise, produced by Dreamworks Animation and PDI, has consistently produced characters of the most astounding personality and expressiveness – they create coherent, relatable feelings and gestures out of ones and zeros, and the abilities of Rosas and others like him are so proficient that we can cease to speak of it as animation and discuss it as performance, the unity of the vocal artists with the tiniest shrugs and facial tics that are seamlessly matched to them.

When you think of Shrek (Mike Myers), or his perpetual sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy), the way they move, and the way we can read their thought process, is as familiar as their voice, and as indelible to their identity. These characters, more than those in any of Dreamworks’ other animated features, feel
real to us, and that is a triumph not just of technique, but the stories they have been placed in up to now, and the messy human moods we recognize within them.

I’m going to share a couple more names: Guillaume Aretos and Peter Zaslav. They are, respectively, the production designer and art director of
Shrek the Third, which is a ceaseless pleasure to look it. When every building, rock, and smudge must be built from nothing, it is even more incumbent on the art department to give a unified look to the characters’ surroundings, and their work on this picture is surpassingly rich and amusing. There’s a scene where the long-suffering Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) is trapped in the display window of a sweets shop, and he’s next to a stuffed pastry that looks so convincingly flaky and sumptuous that my tummy rumbles.

Why am I spending so long praising these often-anonymous craftsmen? Because they have delivered to their utmost in
Shrek the Third, and their compatriots in the “above-the-line” categories – the writers and directors – have failed them. Tasked to give us another episode in the adventures of the green ogre who attracts more friends the more he wants to be left alone, they answer with what boils down to a shallow sitcom. Perhaps, after the inventiveness of the first two pictures, they have been crushed by the obligation to find something for all these old characters to do. In the summer of 2004 I praised both Spider-Man 2 and Shrek 2 as examples of how sequels can flourish when there’s sufficient inspiration and love from their makers to justify their existence. Now, three years later we have both the unbalanced disappointment of Spider-Man 3 and this picture, which seems only to exist because the business model of franchise movies demands it, but is nonetheless amazing to look at.

Sometime between the second picture and this one, Shrek won over the hearts and minds of the Kingdom of Far, Far Away, whose royal daughter Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) he married. The peasants used to eye him with suspicion and tighten their grips on their pitchforks. Now they all think he’s a swell guy, and he thinks likewise. He hasn’t shed all his vulgar bodily processes, but he has become, distressingly, quite friendly and cheerful. Unlike that other jolly green giant, the only product he’s selling is himself.

The plot has him in-line to become King. His father-in-law (John Cleese) is on his last frog legs, and his funeral produces one of the biggest laughs in the movie by simply accepting that there is a proper and long-established way to bury any frog we love. Also, Fiona is pregnant. Shrek wants neither the role of Father nor Monarch, and while the movie isn’t willing to explore the ramifications of him attempting to dodge the former, there is a way out of the latter. Another heir, a teenager named Arthur (Justin Timberlake), is off at school, where he spends his days being kicked. Shrek, with sidekicks Donkey and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) along for the ride (remember when he used to shun sidekicks?) sets off to fetch Arthur and convince him to take the throne.

Meanwhile, the pretty and dastardly Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) still feels the throne was meant to be his, but has been reduced to doing dinner theatre. He still has designs on that crown, though, and recruits all the storybook villains to his side with a Big Speech.

A rule of thumb is that good plots generally solve problems by providing space for characters to take decisive action which is true to their nature, and bad stories solve problems with Big Speeches accompanied by a heartwarming underscore. Shrek 3 has not just one, but several big speeches. Even the villains are using them these days. The old Shrek would have been grumpy enough about conventionality to see through this and take it apart as the wafer-thin device it is.

But now that he’s reached Shrek the Third, he’s no longer a character with true growth to undergo, no longer expected to respond to events as an ogre ought. He’s become a “personality”, like the dear and recently-departed Charles Nelson Reilly, who was never able to vanquish in the public’s mind the flamboyant persona from all those episodes of Match Game. This movie is filled with “personalities” – Donkey, Puss, Dragon, Fiona, Charming, Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, all of whom get screen time to take our familiarity with them out for a spin. As for the new characters, Arthur is too stereotypically sullen to be interesting, and the scatterbrained hippie Merlin (Eric Idle) puts some zap back in during his minutes simply because he’s the only one doing something we haven’t seen already.

They’re all occupying a beautiful screen canvas – that’s a tribute to the designers and animators and their ability to squeeze delightful details into the corners. I don’t want it to be faint praise that they’ve executed a minor vision impeccably, but there you go.


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