At long last – the summer movie actually worth watching. After a few months of underwhelming studio fare, Shrek 2 arrives on a wave of publicity and record-breaking US receipts to herald the latest fusion of high-concept CGI, stellar casting and witty bon mots from the Dreamworks team.
The plot carries straight on from the fade-out of Shrek (2001). All is not well when newlyweds Shrek and Princess Fiona (voiced by Myers and Diaz) return from their honeymoon to the land of Far Far Away. Her parents react with horror at the choice of groom, while a conniving fairy godmother is concocting a plan to get Prince Charming to marry the Princess.
Poor old Shrek. Having spent the last film trying to convince Fiona that he is worth loving, he now has to try and overcome the prejudice of a whole kingdom. Once again it’s left to his trusted ‘noble steed’, Donkey (Murphy – by far the best thing in both films) to lighten his mood and keep him smiling.
Whereas the original film played a little to earnestly on the fairytale myths and methods, Shrek 2 is much subtler in its appropriation of old forms which in turn allows a greater freedom to revel in jokey asides and nudge-nudge film referentiality. So sustained are the lampoons that the film will require second or third viewings to fully appreciate the richness and vibrancy of the screenplay. Visual gags include a wonderfully composed pastiche of Beverly Hills (complete with Joan Rivers and boutiques like ‘Versarchery’), spoofs of OJ Simpson’s drive through Hollywood, and grainy recreations of old home movies and ‘World’s Wackiest Police’ shows.
Further rat-a-tat laughs come from nods to From Here to Eternity (1953), ET (1982), Ghostbusters (1984) and Mission: Impossible (1996). Indeed, for a student of post-1950s American pop culture, Shrek 2 provides astonishingly rich pickings. Four different screenwriters hurl gag after gag into the mix, and unlike, say Naked Gun (1988) or Scary Movie (2000), where the scattergun approach only works every other time, this film displays a cohesion and consistency unmatched in recent American comedy.
Needless to say, Shrek 2 is not just about getting to adult audience to laugh at posters of ‘Sir Justin’. At its heart is a classic story of triumph over intolerance, a ‘race-against-time’ momentum that never lets up, and a vivid array of well-rounded characters. Plaudits will always go to Murphy, but Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots riffs amusingly on his Latin Lover persona and, with Donkey, provides the latest in a long line of ‘Annoying Talking Animals’ dating back to Baloo and beyond. John Cleese and Julie Andrews provide regal poise and refreshingly stereotyped diction as the King and Queen, while Jennifer Saunders’s Fairy Godmother sings and schemes with malicious conviction. (Incidentally, that really is Jonathan Ross providing the voice of bar(wo)man, his voice apparently being dubbed over Larry King’s for the UK release).
And the downsides? Hard to find at first, but on reflection, there is a sense that really this is a production mightily pleased with itself. Pixar and Disney are now left trailing in Dreamworks’s wake after this critical and commercial success. The animation sometimes reminds you of the battle scenes in the recent Star Wars films – visually stunning, and yet computer-designed to within an inch of its life. You might even find yourself yearning for the old-fashioned trace-and-colour days of yore, where painstaking draughtsmanship took months to perfect instead of today’s click of a mouse. And with Shrek 3 and 4 already in production, one would hope that future adventures of our familiar friends might not necessarily rely upon poking fun at Spiderman (2002) and The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). It’s not that these jokes aren’t funny, it’s just that sooner or later the raw material will dry up, leaving the (admittedly talented) writers and directors to think up broader, more profound story lines.
For some, Shrek 2 will be the perfect no-brainer summer movie, for others a benchmark in 3-D photo-realistic animation, and for more still a post-modern web of pop-culture. It is this reason that finally explains the film’s durability. Sequels rarely better the original, but in this instance, Shrek 2 develops and expands upon an already perfect concept to leave the competition green with envy.