This week, the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast scrutinizes a pair of sequels that seem to have nothing in common: SHREK FOREVER AFTER, the latest family-friend CGI fantasy from DreamWorks Animation; and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the latest horrifying episode in George A. Romero’s on-going zombie apocalypse, which began way back in 1968 with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. What’s the connection? Although each film has their worthwhile moments, both raise the question of whether their franchises are tapped out and in need of a hiatus to recharge their batteries. Also on the menu: a round-up of recent news, a preview of the week’s home video releases, including TRUE BLOOD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON and THE ROAD; and listener mail.
The so-called “Final Chapter in the Shrek franchise may be presented in 3-D, but its execution is flat, even by the standards of Dreamworks Animation (which has always run second to Pixar in the computer-generated animation sweepstakes). The premise is serviceable, putting the familiar characters into an alternate reality that prevents them from simply replaying their old routines, but the good jokes are spaced too far apart, eliciting only occasional laughter, and for all the franchise’s patented “We’re too snide to believe this fairy tale bull” attitude, the supposedly tender moments are milked in the misguided hope of yielding a genuine emotional response. Consequently, SHREK FOREVER AFTER features only a moderately interesting storyline, periodically interrupted by gratuitous, explosive set pieces that do little to enliven the tedium; the only real relief comes from the occasional funny character bit.
After a brief prologue to introduce new villain Rumplestiltskin, a montage cleverly portrays Shrek’s growing angst over the repetitious daily ritual of domestic life (diapers, nosy tourists, clogged outhouse), culminating in an embarrassing temper tantrum at a birthday party for one of his and Fiona’s children. Yearning for the good old days when he was an unmarried ogre – and an object of fear among the human villagers – Shrek signs a magical contract with Rumplestiltskin, allowing him to enjoy one full day as it used to be.
The catch is that Shrek must give up a day in return, and Rumplestiltskin chooses the day on which Shrek was born. Before you can say, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this creates an alternate reality in which Shrek did not rescue Fiona from her curse in the first film, and instead her parents tried to save her by signing a contract with Rumplestiltskin. Once Shrek’s magical day is over, he will cease to exist; his only escape clause is to get Fiona to fall in love with him again before morning.
The script for SHREK FOREVER AFTER is marred by inconsistencies: although Shrek is the one who was never born in this new reality, it is Fiona’s royal parents who wink out of existence, and Rumplestiltskin manages to claim their kingdom without fulfilling his half of the bargain (which was to save Fiona). Does it matter? Probably not – at least, not if the jokes fly fast and funny enough to make us forget the details.
Sadly, that doesn’t happen. It is mildly amusing to see Shrek trying to reunite with old companions who no longer recognize him, and there is at least some novelty in seeing him among other ogres (who make Shrek look relative small and tame by comparison). But that is not enough to sustain a movie for over 90 minutes, especially when the level of on-screen humor is about equal to that of the poster tagline: “It’s not ogre till its ogre.”
Apparently aware that this will not have audiences rolling in the aisles, the filmmakers pump up the soundtrack with pop tunes, sometimes cleverly juxtaposed, sometimes not. Much more invigorating is the original score by Harry Gregson-Williams, which features a clever mix of disco rhythms and ominous organ for an early party sequence in the royal castles, after Rumplestiltskin has taken over and filled it with his minions (who seem to be predominantly look-alike witches riding brooms).
Also audio-enlivening are the solos for the Pied Piper, a sleek and impressively rendered character, whose flute is his voice; the character’s mystique is maintained by not giving him dialogue, making him this sequel’s most impressive creation. (Whether this is a comment on the quality of the screenplay’s dialogue, I will leave for others to decide.) In any case, the Piper is on screen just long enough to make you wish there were more of him; one hopes he is well represented on the soundtrack album.
Rumplestiltskin follows in the series habit of creating villainous pipsqueaks (anybody remember Farquad?). He’s not overtly ominous, but he has his devious appeal. The character design and the voice (by Walt Dohrn) seem deliberately designed to invoke old Rankin-Bass animated TV specials. (Presumably, after trashing former employer Disney for three films, DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg is going after other targerts.) And his penchant for donning different wigs depending on his mood is amusing.
As for the returning characters, Shrek is just Shrek, going through the predictable character arc of regretting his present life until he learns how good it really was. Fiona is now a warrior-ogre (ho-hum). Donkey (thanks to Eddie Murphy’s delivery) is still funny). Almost all the best jokes are at the expense of Puss in Boots, who still sounds sleek and sexy (thanks to the voice of Atonio Banderas) – even though he’s gone fat and soft due to easy living and too much cream. (Yes, the animators use the big, sad eyes expression again, and yes, it still works, eliciting verbal “aw”s from the audience.)
There has always been a whiff of narcissistic egotism in the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE storyline, but in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic it is at least possible to “read” the sequence as a vision that Clarence the angel bestows upon George Bailey in order to teach him a lesson. In other variations (like THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT and here), the point seems less to teach a humbling lesson than to expand a sense of self-importance: “Look at how miserable the world would be without me!” is the underlying message of SHREK FOREVER AFTER. It’s a pleasant enough fantasy to indulge, but it worked better when Capra used at a plot device for the third act, not the plot for the entire film. SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010). Directed by Mike Mitchell. Written by Josh Klausner, Darren Lemke. Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Baderas, Julie Andrews, Jon Hamm, John Cleese, Craig Robinson, Walt Dohrn, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Kathy Griffin, Mary Kay Place.
Paramount Pictures releases yet another installment of the computer-animated franchise. This time the story has the titular green ogre making a deal with Rumpelstilskin in order to escape the drudgery of his married life and return to the glory of his earlier days. Unfortunately, Shrek ends up in a weird alternate reality, in which he and Fiona have never met, and he realizes he must restore the life he gave up. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and Antonio Banderas once again provide the voices, with help from Julie Andrews, Justin Timberlake, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Sedaris. Mike Mitchell directs, from a screenplay by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke. Release date: May 21.
In the final weekend of summer box office, SHREK THE THIRD was the top film in the overseas market, thanks to a strong opening in Italy. The film earned $17.2-million, raising its international B.O. to $474-million. The SHREK sequel was one of three “thre-quel” movies to do big business that turned this season into a strong one for Hollywood; the other two were SPIDER-MAN 3 and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END:
The frame capped a sizzling summer offshore as the … three-quels turned in solid numbers — far above the same frame a year ago when “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” led with $11.6 million. And it was a performance exemplifying the entire summer, which saw sturdy grosses from new iterations of “Shrek,” “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Harry Potter,” “Die Hard,” “Fantastic Four” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” along with impressive contributions from “Transformers,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Ratatouille.”