Shrek the Third arrives on the big screen as an undercooked lark that isn't half as witty as it thinks it is, nor is it half as deep as it would like to be. It has its moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, but there is no connective tissue to string the gags together.
This round with the big guy takes a step back from the fractured fairy tale roots in favor of a plot thread that is a lot more mundane and a lot less energetic. The first two had standard fairy tale motifs of fairies, dragons, princesses trapped in towers, adventure, happy endings, and everything in between. This time out, we get away from the fairy tale arc in favor of finding a rightful heir and dealing with impending fatherhood, and that is where I think the story fails to take off.
As the film starts, Fiona's father, King Harold, is on his deathbed. He announces that Shrek is next in line for the throne, news that does not sit well with our green ogre. He also learns that there is another potential king, a teenager named Arthur. Eager to give up his shot at the throne in favor of his "vermin filled shack" he heads off to the town of Worcestershire in search of the youngster. Along for the ride are Donkey and Puss 'n Boots, who don't really have an impact on the story outside of some comic relief. As the trio head off on their quest, another bombshell is dropped — Fiona is pregnant. This revelation gives our hero some more to think about outside of just finding the heir apparent.
While the journey to find Arthur progresses, Prince Charming is up to his scheming tricks. The opening scene shows the would-be king reduced to performing dinner theater, re-enacting the events of the first movie. This is clearly not where he wishes to be, so he rounds up the other downtrodden fairy tale villains and stages a coup of Far Far Away in lieu of a true king. In his role as the self-proclaimed new ruler of the kingdom, he prepares for the return of Shrek and the inevitable defeat of his foe to claim his rightful place as ruler. En route to this end, he must face off with Fiona and her fellow fairy tale ladies, Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. That doesn't even get into Pinnochio, Gingy, the Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, and the Blind Mice.
So, with Prince Charming preparing his endgame, we get to watch Shrek and company deal with the moody, nerdy teenager that is Arthur. Arthur is the Arthur of legend, as we also meet Guinevere and Lancelot, who are at the height of their school's popularity. This is where the story really slows down. Following this group travel back to Far Far Away is nothing short of agonizing; not much happens, the characters don't reveal anything of real interest, and the jokes are way too sparse.
Anyway, everything builds to the climactic showdown between Charming and Shrek, where Shrek realizes where his true love lies. I kept waiting for the story to take off and take us somewhere, but the whole thing feels like a prologue. When the inevitable climax does occur it feels rushed, as if the writers realized they were reaching their time limit and had to make sure to wrap everything up to leave on a note of lovable cuteness and have the audience leave with a spring in their step.
Sadly, the formula which carried the first two films to success fails here, as the whole fairy tale aspect is largely ignored in favor of this story of fatherhood and kingship, which feels rather dull. Sure, there are fairy tale aspects in the appearance of all these characters that we know and love, but that is about it. There are some fun uses of pop music and cultural references, there are some clever and witty one-liners, but again, the story has no meat to hang them on.
The animation is gorgeous, easily some of the best seen this side of Cars. Likewise, the voice performances are all quite good and capture the essence of the characters, even if the dialogue fell flat. Mike Myer's Shrek is a lovable oaf who means well, while Eddie Murphy is as lively as ever as Donkey. Antonio Banderas returns as the suave kitty Puss 'n Boots. I only wish we had more of him — this character is one of my favorites. Among the other stars: Cameron Diaz is back as Fiona, and John Cleese and Rupert Everett are back as King Harold and Prince Charming, respectively. There is also a list of SNL performers including Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri, and Amy Sedaris, along with an enormous list of well-known performers whose voices appear in the movie: Justin Timberlake (as Arthur), Ian McShane, Larry King, John Krasinski, Regis Philbin, and Eric Idle, to name a few.
Bottom line. I did enjoy the one-liners and many of the comic touches, I just wish that everything came together in a stronger package. While the kids loved it, I was left a little flat. I laughed and had a good time, for the most part, but this could have been so much more. It is like a dumbing-down of the Shrek films combined with Happily N'Ever After. It is fun for the spectacle, but lacks any real draw.