It’s a terrible time in the Shrekuniverse. King Harold (John Cleese) is now on his deathbed. This is a tragedy, as you might expect, considering he’s both a frog-king, as well as being voiced by John Cleese. If he dies, we won’t get Cleese’s voiceover for the rest of the film, unless they want to include a great deal of flashbacks. Earlier Shrekfilms didn’t have many of these, and it seems like this one won’t either.
Unfortunately, the good king doesn’t make it through to see the end of the movie. He passes away after a very extended explanation that Shrek (Mike Myers) is his heir to the throne. Shrek, being an ogre and not being accustomed to royal life, doesn’t want the job, and questions whether there is another person who can become the new king. After feigning his death a couple of times, Harold finally spits it out: There’s a kid named Arthur (Justin Timberlake) out there who is next in line if Shrek really doesn’t want to take the role. Directly after the funeral, Shrek, along with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), embarks on a quest to find this Arthur, convince him to become the new king, and bring him back to Far Far Away.
Meanwhile, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek’s wife, is pregnant, and only manages to tell him after he’s already on a ship sailing off to find Arthur. She spends a great deal of time interacting with the other princesses (Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty), as well as the “Ugly Stepsister” character. But then, surprise! Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) has returned, and along with a lot of other “neglected” characters, is taking over Far Far Away once and for all.
We have two stories going on here. The first is basically the same type of fetch quest that Shrek and Donkey had to go on in the first film, except this time there’s an annoying side character in Arthur to make us want to put our fingers in our ears. Also, Shrek isn’t sure he really wants to be a father, so he spends a lot of time moping around — while also acting somewhat like a father-figure to Artie.
Second, we have Fiona’s “I’m captured” storyline, which culminates in a prison break attempt. This wasn’t developed very well, and probably could have been avoided completely if not for the fact that it gives us a main villain in Prince Charming (again). We (presumably) don’t want to see him become the new king of Far Far Away, so we know exactly who we need to root for: Shrek, Fiona, and all of the other “good” characters that were already established in the previous two installments (and short films).
The first story plays out almost exactly the way that the first film worked, apart from the romance aspect. It’s done just as well, for the most part, although you can tell it’s there just to lead to something bigger, which in this case is the climactic final battle against Prince Charming. The princess story doesn’t work at all, and actually ends up complicating things far more than is required. The first two Shrek films kept things simple, and this worked a lot better, especially for younger audiences. There’s ultimately too much going on this time around.
It also doesn’t add up to anything we haven’t seen before. Charming was one of the villains last time around, and he was less interesting than all of the others. Now, he has to carry the show by himself. It doesn’t work. He’s not menacing or sinister enough to give us any tension when he’s about to do something. He has actually gotten weaker, no longer having a magical counterpart, and it’s really hard to take him seriously when we’ve already seen him be defeated once before.
Perhaps the charm has just worn off after three movies. I wasn’t even laughing all that much this time around. Sure, there are a few good lines, as there has always been, but the general light tone and constant humor didn’t seem to be included here. It’s possible that, this time, it was aimed primarily at children, but having the wit to keep adults entertained was what made the first two Shrek films worth watching. Shrek the Third was boring when comparing it to those two films, at least for me. It was both formulaic and unfunny.
If there’s one thing that I don’t think will ever become a criticism of the Shrek series, it’s the way that they look. Animations seem to have been marginally improved, a human character (likely the most difficult to render “realistically”) joins the cast for almost the entire time in this go-round, and you can once again tell that effort went into designing this world and these characters. I can watch these films just to stare at the Shrek world for 90 minutes. It’s just too bad that this one didn’t hold together when looking at it as a motion picture experience.
Shrek the Third has convinced me that the Shrek series no longer needs further installments. The charm is gone, or maybe the missing element was just the good writing. This is a frequently boring, formulaic film that bring forth the occasional laugh and always looks good. The team creating this film didn’t get lazy, but the writers might have. Even fans of the first two films might not find all that much to like here.