Shrek 2
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon. Animated. Voice Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Jennifer Saunders, Rupert Everett, Larry King, Joan Rivers. Screenplay: J. David Stem, Joe Stillman, and David N. Weiss (based on characters created by William Steig).

Every once in a while, success does something good for people. When the first Shrek appeared in the summer of 2001, hell-bent on brand-naming DreamWorks animation as hipper, funnier, and more photo-realist than those animation wonks at Disney, I was put off by how proudly the film paraded its ill will toward its competitors and its bottomless desire to win over the entire planet with its flatulent joie de vivre. That the film ultimately wanted points for its earnest moral message about inner beauty was the funniest thing in the movie, having watched it horse-whip sincerity and flaunted the chip on its own shoulder. And I’m not eager to revisit the movie to find out if I was wrong.

Nor was I eager for a sequel but, enticed by the cooing reviews of several trusted critics, including friends whom I knew disliked the first film as much as I did, I slunk into a morning matinee of Shrek 2 and discovered what a few years, an Oscar, and a mint-sized box-office can achieve: relative placidity, and an eagerness to entertain. Don’t get me wrong, the Shrek franchise hasn’t lost its edge; the incessant pop-culture references still separate the knows from the know-nothings in the audience, unconscionable things still happen to poor little gingerbread men, and the hot tempers and sly double-entendres of almost all the principal characters constantly suggest a PG-13 movie desperate to get out. But what the Shrek team has learned is that a little edge can go a long way, and it need not take the shape of target practice or lowest common denominators. No one’s name in this movie sounds like “Fuckwad”; nowhere are we encouraged to fawn over a character because of how aggressively he burps and farts and wipes his ass with our childhood memories.

In fact, the “villains” in this particular fractured fairy tale are an interesting lot, because they are often also the heroes—Shrek 2 is really a movie about overcoming the worst tendencies in yourself or your family in order to be the best version of yourself. Shrek and Princess Fiona, now married and happily, randily inhabiting their sylvan shack, are summoned one day to the Royal Palace—i.e., Fiona’s parents’ house—to be ceremoniously welcomed as the royal heirs. Shrek is sorta grossed out by the Buckingham Palace elitism of the whole idea (which means he is secretly upset that the in-laws won’t like him); Fiona is peeved that Shrek won’t suck it up and do something that’s important to her (which means she secretly isn’t sure she wants to do this, either). Neither of them want the lonely, motor-mouthed Donkey tagging along on their trip (which means he will certainly, hilariously insinuate his way into the family sedan, to a repeated chorus of “Are we there yet?”s. And no, Shrek does not hit it off with the King and Queen, amiably voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews—who, though their full talents aren’t quite enlisted here, sure suggest they’d make a dynamite pair in a live-action comedy.

What is amazing about this Shrek is that without sacrificing its caustic sense of humor, the film directs it against its characters own foibles, against the annoyances and eccentricities of family, against the difficulty of loving relationships and clinging friendships. Shrek and Fiona, crabbed and jealous and moody as they often are, are also playful and doting and willing to compromise. Theirs is almost as entertainingly realistic a relationship as the one between their two-dimensional cousins Homer and Marge, or the one between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another movie that (less obviously) takes the piss out of fairy-tale notions of love but does so without cheapening the idea of romance or resorting to cynicism. Where the first Shrek was powered by attitude—a dangerous premise, since attitude is something that needs to be projected, tiresomely, at every minute to stay alive on screen—the sequel is powered by actual connection between the characters, which is free to roam across all manner of moods and circumstance and gives the film dimensionality. It also anchors the film so squarely that the margins of the story and of each animated frame are freed up for funny grace notes, like the unexpected sound cues when Shrek and Fiona arrive in her hometown of Far, Far Away (“Funkytown!”), or the cleverly drawn secret love-diary Shrek finds (and misinterprets) in Fiona’s bedroom, or the priceless Starbucks gag that almost steals a climactic scene late in the picture.

Shrek 2 may be the rare sequel that is freed up a little by not having a source text as a basis; rather than focusing on how to illustrate and popularize an existing book, the writing team seems to have concentrated on who all the characters are, what each of them wants, and all the fruitful opportunities for tension, comedy, and surprise they can spin out of these convoluted cross-purposes. Mixing things up beyond the basic Meet the Parents premise is that old reliable Fairy Godmother (voiced by AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders), whose attempts to console a caught-in-the-middle Fiona are actually motivated by professional ire: not on this matchmaker’s watch is a princess going to stay married to an ogre, not when the still-viable and utterly undone Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) wants to know how the big green beastie stole his moment of matrimonial glory. And then there’s Puss ‘n’ Boots, who signs on as Shrek and Donkey’s third musketeer when the expected series of conflicts and obstacles have got Shrek on another quest to prove his mettle. As much fun as Banderas has voicing Puss, and the fun is contagious to his audience, the animators have even more of a ball, devising the most pitiable Bambi-eyed facial expression since Bambi’s own and then tossing in a gut-busting Alien reference (in both senses of “gut-busting”) when we least expect it.

Listen, reader, I just laughed and laughed; I had a grinning good time at the movies that morning, which is what I recall more clearly than the details of the film itself. That Shrek 2 fades a little in the memory is partially due to the chaotic closing sequences, which try way too hard to do way, way too much, including not one but two gratuitous musical numbers (from the Bonnie Tyler and Ricky Martin songbooks no less—why??). It’s the first time that this snappy, colorful, and sophisticated little comedy derails into garish silliness, as if the directors themselves were on the same sugar high as all the kiddies in the audience. And yes, it's too bad that the movie ends before it ever figures out how best to take fullest advantage of some key players like Saunders and Everett—not just of their characters but of the game, ready-and-willing actors themselves. Still, like last year’s Finding Nemo, Shrek 2 manages to be warm and clever at the same time, opting for inspired sight-gags and perfect, rib-tickling voice-casting to make a sweet and sincere little story about family feel fresh and engaging. The visuals are brightly primary and casually eye-popping rather than dominated by big set-pieces or show-offy details. If you step back for a minute and consider some of the images in Shrek 2, like the Fairy Godmother’s iridescent potions or Fiona’s velvet dress, you’ll be startled by what the animators have managed, but you’re unlikely to make the connections until after the movie is over because the artists, like everyone else on board Shrek 2, want you to focus on the characters and the story.

It’s true that, like Nemo, Shrek 2 doesn’t really break any new ground; it’s amiable, but not incredible, and I think that’s just fine: the first Shrek was so preoccupied with breaking new ground that all it really did was find new ways for cartoons to be crass. Give credit, then, to director Andrew Adamson and the rest of the creators who fixed a recipe that paying customers the world over implied wasn’t broke—and don’t underestimate how refreshing it is to see a movie that likes its characters even when they’re misbehaving, and wants you to like them, too, without simply pandering. It took two tries to get the recipe right, but the Shrek franchise is finally about real beauty. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Animated Feature
Best Original Song: "Accidentally in Love"

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Song: "Accidentally in Love"

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