A sequel too far

The animated ogre is back, but this time he's only in it for the money

<strong>Shrek the Third (U

The mild-at-heart ogre Shrek, hero of two hugely popular animated comedies, was named in homage to the German actor Max Schreck, best known for playing the vampiric title role in F W Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu. But with the release of Shrek the Third, that fond tribute has come back to bite Shrek's creators in the neck. Now it is the franchise itself that has joined the ranks of the undead, staggering around the world's multiplexes and toy shops, draining our children of blood, or possibly just their pocket money.

I think we can all agree that threequels are a bad idea. If even Francis Ford Coppola could louse it up with The Godfather: Part III, where does that leave lesser mortals? Shrek the Third is no worse than any other threequel, which is to say it's wholly unnecessary, creatively impoverished and an insult to the audiences who made the first two instalments so successful. As the story begins, Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is named as the new ruler of Far, Far Away by his dying father-in-law, King Harold (John Cleese). But with his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), announcing that she's pregnant, this is too much responsibility for one ogre. Shrek discovers he can shirk his regal duties by finding Fiona's teenage cousin, Arthur (Justin Timblerlake), and persuading him to take the throne instead. I would have liked to have reported that Shrek's sidekicks, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas), had both been humanely put to sleep. But instead, they're back, and as unfunny as ever.

I've never been much of a Shrek man. For me, the series represents a triumph of sassiness over soul. Once upon a time, children's films contained hidden treasures here and there that only older viewers could access - perhaps a knowing gag, or some witty innuendo, that worked in tandem with the more straightforward pleasures aimed at youngsters. I didn't know at the age of five that Baloo the Bear from Disney's The Jungle Book was a beatnik, or that the shaggy vultures in that film were modelled on the Beatles. But it didn't matter; the storytelling and characterisation were rich enough to thrive on their own merits. By contrast, the Shrek trilogy, and Shrek the Third in particular, are comprised almost entirely of in-jokes and pop-culture references that are not only stale by the time they reach the screen, but have precluded any enchantment.

Not that it was a rum idea for the Shrek films to set themselves up as antidotes to old-fashioned narratives. Shrek the Third wisely mocks the passivity of your average fairy-tale princess: finding themselves in a sticky situation, Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty immediately lie down and wait to be rescued. That's the sort of iconoclastic spirit that could bring Shrek the Third to life if there were more of it, especially when combined with the euphoria of the picture's silliest sequence, a near-death experience for the Gingerbread Man that prompts his short, crummy life to flash before his eyes.

The makers of Shrek the Third fancy themselves as irreverent pranksters, but this supposed irreverence is largely in bad faith. Far, Far Away is full of establishments like Versarchery, Farbucks Coffee and Saxon Fifth Avenue, though this doesn't excuse the fact that Versace, Starbucks Coffee and Saks Fifth Avenue are still profiting from riding the same carousel of product placement found in any Hollywood product. And while Merlin (Eric Idle) lampoons the touchy-feely language that has permeated our vocabulary, the film itself is steeped in therapy-speak. Arthur craves a father-figure, but comes to learn that he has the strength to be a leader. Shrek resolves the commitment issues that get him in a flap about fatherhood, though by the end, he and Fiona are forsaking sex in favour of sleep. Future sequels in which Shrek wrestles with his midlife crisis or battles impotence could lie in store unless the film-makers heed for good those two little words of closure: The End.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins