Review - Shrek Forever After (***)

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Shrek Forever After93 mins.  PG.  Directed by Mike Mitchell.  Written by Josh Klausner & Darren Lemke.  Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, and Walt Dohrn.

The fourth movie in the ever-popular Shrek franchise is being billed as "The Final Chapter," and that's probably a good thing.  Having exhausted the character possibilities with the last, and weakest, entry in the series, Shrek the Third, Dreamworks has gone back to the drawing board, taking a page right out of the It's a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future Part II playbook.  Here, we imagine what Far Far Away would have been like had Shrek never been born.  This basically gives the animators and screenwriters free reign to circle back to the first film, and re-introduce these characters to each other, as if the other three movies never even existed.  It's a clever ploy, and the movie does just enough with it to avoid the direct-to-DVD impression the previews convey, and end the Shrek series on a graceful note.  While Shrek Forever After lacks the sharp pop culture references and edgy humor of the first two movies, it is still a pleasant family diversion that kids will enjoy and parents won't mind too much.

Forever After picks up with Shrek in full-on tamed Ogre mode.  Fed up with the monotony and soul-crushing routines of day-to-day family life, Shrek makes a hasty decision to sign a contract with the devious Rumpelstiltskin (nicely voiced by animator and novice voice actor Walt Dohrn).  In exchange for getting to be a feared Ogre again, Shrek inadvertently gives up a day from his childhood - the day he was born.  The result?  Rumpelstiltskin is king, Donkey doesn't want anything to do with him, Fiona is a Xenia warrior princess-type, and Puss in Boots, a lazy, out-of-shape domesticated pet.  Can Shrek get Fiona to fall back in love with him, thereby invoking the contract's escape clause, before the day runs out?

In any movie with this kind of alternate reality scenario, the fun lies not in the destination (we know Shrek will get Fiona to kiss him), but in the journey.  By re-introducing these characters to each other, the goal is that the audience will remember what we liked so much about them to begin with.  For the most part, we do.  Donkey is less irritating than usual, and the story device requires Shrek to woo Fiona all over again, adding some much needed spice to an otherwise staid relationship, Shrek babies and all.

 I don't know if Dreamworks is just gaining maturity in its attempts to keep pace with Pixar or what, but gone from Forever After are the frantic, cluttered pop culture gags that plagued the third movie.  In their place is a serene, levelheaded sense of story and pacing.  The Shrek series may not be as cool as it once was, and nowhere near as funny, but it leaves with its dignity intact.  That is, until Forever After makes enough money to warrant a fifth movie, and that whole "Final Chapter" nonsense is conveniently explained away as a mere marketing ploy.

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