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Resigning Oneself to Entertainment with "Shrek 2"

The optimal purpose of "the sequel" is to further and deepen the conflicts, problems, and characters involved with the first. Sometimes this is done by introducing new characters and situations that mirror, reverse, or otherwise reflectively skew the first film (Toy Story 2). Other times, the sequel will reloop itself through the first film's characters while continuing the story, revealing things previously believed untrue (The Godfather, Part II). It's all good. Not so good, on the other hand, is when sequels exist for the reason that most seem to sport- money. Michael Maltese said once that the threat of the loss of monetary compensation was all the inspiration he needed to start being funny as he wrote for the Looney Tunes. What Hollywood's recent glut of sequels have revealed is that very, very few people are Mike Maltese. After all, relooping is a short hop, skip, and jump away from rehashing, and that is what happens when producers and executives try to clone the success of an earlier film. As Shrek 2 drew closer, its director, Andrew Adamson (the only director of the first to continue to the sequel) plainly admitted that the first film was never designed to have a sequel, and therefore silently confirmed that money had made this sequel necessary. Sad to say, it shows.

I am a really rather large fan of the first Shrek, and for reasons that I find more personally inflated than my other favorite films. Being as geeky as I am in the realm of animation, Shrek represented for me the ultimate loving parody/careful deconstruction of the animated film genre. It's easily my favorite Dreamworks film, live-action or animation. Ergo, the sequel had a hell of a lot to live up to for me. I admit that I paid very close attention to the film as it got closer and closer to release, and that my expectations began to wane well before I got into the theatre. The Adamson interview was one factor. Another was the whole Meet The Parents/Guess Who's Coming To Dinner thing that the film seemed to base itself on. And upon seeing it, I am left with two main sentiments: 1. I really did like it, if not love it. 2. It was almost everything I had feared.


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What it was that I feared was that Shrek 2, in an effort to try and duplicate the love story of the first film while still supposedly "continuing" the plot, would undermine the beauty of the first film's love story. The first Shrek was cunningly able to twist the theme of being more than one's physical appearance, especially in regards to Fiona; it was one of that film's unique charms when we discovered that, while she looked like a princess, Fiona seemed to act a heck of a lot like Shrek. That made the ogre-form discovery of that film entirely believable; in fact, it seemed to integrate her character traits a lot more than the discordant princess-image did. But the sequel introduces Fiona's parents as human, shows that she grew up with them, and even seems to insist that Fiona's transformation from human to ogre was a willing alteration. (Fiona, in a fight with Shrek, says, "Remember, I've made changes for you.") Anyone who remembers the climax of the first film will see through this immediately; Fiona's change left her disoriented and confused ("I don't understand. I'm supposed to be beautiful."); the only one making any choices like that was the actual curse itself.

The problem with all that, one may notice, is how love itself seems to have wormed itself out of the equation. Fiona doesn't choose to be an ogre, but she does choose Shrek. After all, it is their honest, sneakily-constructed love of the first film that brings that parody such amazing warmth and meaning. Shrek 2, on the other hand, doesn't get to deal with any of that for a very obvious reason - it's already been done. Shrek 2 knows that Shrek and Fiona's love is ironclad, as that was the whole point of the first film; therefore, the filmmakers try to keep the two apart for as long as possible in the sequel. It's the right move to make from a storytelling standpoint, but it's also a glaring sign that there's nothing left to say. If love is not the issue at hand, then crafting a story around Shrek and Fiona's relationship is bound to fall back upon the shallow matters of form. Is Fiona a human or an ogre? Should either of them change? With love being a foregone conclusion, these questions are petty. Fiona's final choice in the end will surprise no one, but the film also spends so little time with Fiona and her desires that it fails to justify WHY she chose that. Surely the alternate choice (and I speak vaguely so as to not directly spoil anything) was actually just as doable. The only reason things turn out the way they do is so these characters can end up the same as they began, which makes sequels easier. And a film where characters' arcs are circular is a sign of ill-developed thematic material. This ties into the additionally hollow approach towards the film's villain, the Fairy Godmother. Saunders is hilarious and gives a great performance, but she's evil for reasons of just-because. Farquaad was a bigot and in self-denial, which wonderfully reflected the heroes. The Godmother, on the other hand, has a lot of evil behind her with essentially no explanation whatsoever, outside of us just needing someone to hate.

And yet, I still insist that the movie is good. Good how, you may ask? (Especially given all that previous garble.) Fact is, despite all this disappointment I have in regards to the sequel's relationship with its forebear and its significantly more shallow theme, this is still a well-made flick. PDI's animation just keeps getting better and better, and they're developing a distinctly different style than that of Pixar. Pixar is like candy, where PDI is like steak; it's earthier, both real and unreal all at once. The cast is superb, as always. Myers continues to bring conviction, hilarity, and pathos to his performance in a way that we never see when he's in front of a camera, and Eddie Murphy just plain brings hilarity in a way that we never see in front of the camera (one word for ya: Rawhide). Yes, what you've heard is true - Antonio Banderas steals the whole damn movie. It's unfortunate that Rupert Everett, as Prince Charming, doesn't have more to do, though. Most importantly, the guys at PDI still know how to pace a story, even if it's not as deep. The film is mostly a joy to watch because timing is really everything. It does move faster than Shrek, but not because they're rushing anything; there's just more plot points to hit.

So, after all this furor within my own mind, I do recommend Shrek 2. It's a far better example of family entertainment than nearly anything else that's out in either theatres or on TV anymore. It won't make anyone's brain hurt. But I cannot say that it is a successful sequel. Shrek took its cast of characters and put them through a wringer, only to discover their strengths and their loves on the other side. Shrek 2 takes its cast of characters for a goofy ride and drops them off at the exact same place it picked them up. As for me, I don't think I need to let Shrek 2 undermine my love of Shrek. After all, based on Adamson's interviews, I can safely say that Shrek is the REAL story.

Three (***) stars out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on May 23, 2004

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