A high room in a slightly shorter tower

Tuesday, 25 May 2004 — 10:44am | Animation, Film, Full reviews

Perhaps it is fitting that the hundredth post on this weblog concerns what is only the second film to date to have opened above $100 million domestically in its first weekend, Shrek 2. This film is an interesting one to critique for a number of reasons, one being that Andrew Adamson’s next directorial project is the biggest blip on the 2005 radar not entitled Star Wars Episode III, The Goblet of Fire or Cars: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. Okay, so maybe I made that last part up, but one can only dream.

Another reason why Shrek 2 is notable is because it is a model fence-sitter when it comes to a diagnosis of acute sequel-itis, a movie that falls short of its predecessor in many respects but does not fail to deliver a fresh experience in its own right and do what good sequels are supposed to do, which is to reveal an understanding of the first film that nobody knew needed revealing, and enhance the canon of the franchise in question on the whole. If there are any comparisons to be made here, it is not to the zenith of sequels (The Empire Strikes Back), the forgettable and pointless rehashes (Men In Black II), or even the disputed territory in between (The Matrix Reloaded), but to the other big parody sequel in recent memory, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Now here’s a critical quotation they should put in the ads that pretty much sums up what an audience can expect: “Shrek 2 is the Spy Who Shagged Me of animation!” Even ignoring the Mike Myers factor, the approach is similar: satisfying the reason why audiences demand sequels in the first place by giving them more of what they saw in the first: more of the same type of humour, but with send-ups that were left out of the original or simply could not be done at the time; for an idea of the latter case, the references to The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man. Given that Shrek planted itself firmly as the definitive cinematic representation of the “fractured fairy-tale” subgenre, the territory of Jon Scieszka children’s books, this is hardly a bad thing.

The casting is nothing short of ingenious. Antonio Banderas lends a swashbuckling personality to the hired assassin Puss in Boots that overshadows the returning characters from the first movie. The Fairy Godmother, played by the latter half of French & Saunders, has a few bouncing musical numbers to herself that are among the movie’s more whimsical moments. Even bit parts are spot-on when it comes to the voice work: Joan Rivers as herself? Larry King as the Ugly Stepsister? It’s all here, and it all works.

On a purely visual level, the first Shrek was impressive enough, but by the time the sequel is over, one can tell that this franchise has defined a stylistic palette to call its own. The technical advances are clearly visible in the final render, but feel like a natural and evolutionary extension rather than an overhaul. The human characters look and move more fluidly without shooting straight for realism like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and the designs seem inspired by the Claymation eyes, ears and cheeks of the Aardman variety; think Wallace and Gromit. Shrek 2 is also no slouch when it comes to pulling off what the first did in spades, some of the most radiant and magical transformative sequences committed to film. They are but subtle scenes with flashes of light, yes, but the way they are staged has an atmosphere about it that is quite reassuring when one takes into consideration that the same imaginative aptitude is going to make a stop in Narnia.

Some of the fairy-tale cameos in the first film such as Magic Mirror, the Gingerbread Man and Pinocchio return in the sequel as a cast of second-tier sidekicks, and it is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it makes for the best film spoof in the movie, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s based on something released a full three years before The Matrix but feels at least three times more refreshing than the bullet-time rehash in Shrek‘s Robin Hood fight. However, this ends up feeling very much like a pale imitation of an established Pixar tradition, and these guys don’t match up to Rex, Hamm and Slinky Dog. Ironically, Shrek 2 is at its best when it does what Pixar does, but it defines itself by doing what Pixar doesn’t – in particular, the subtle adult humour of Austin Powers territory.

Substantially, though, the main reason why the sequel falls short of being a classic is that despite its serviceably amusing extension of Shrek‘s wry humour, it misses the boat on something key. The quality of the first movie was not due to its humour, but rather because it explored the entire range from Jar Jar Binks flatulence to something ultimately more sentimental and self-contained, and knew how to switch between the two at a moment’s notice with impeccable timing. Shrek 2 has but a fraction of the heart, and its lack of a deep emotional core reduces it to no more than a lighthearted and fun movie. This may be enough for some fans of the original, but it comes off as a step backwards in comparison.

Part of the reason behind this deficiency may be that the relationship between Shrek and Fiona has little room to develop. We do see a greater exploration of what the first film hinted at about Fiona’s personality, which is that she did harbour expectations of living her adult life as a beautiful princess who lands herself a handsome prince, as opposed to say, an ogre who lands herself another ogre. This is all well and good, and what I earlier referred to as “what good sequels are supposed to do,” but it never legitimately puts their marriage in danger, even when one takes into account the major plot device of Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) trying to steal her away.

The movie ends far too quickly and feels much too short, but that is to its credit, and speaks to the frantic pace of the superbly entertaining last half-hour. The final impression as the credits roll, though, is that while Shrek 2 complements its precursor well and proves to be a lot of fun, it is just that and little else. For an ogre movie, it sure is a lightweight when it comes to actually being emotionally affecting, and that relegates it to being a cotton-candy summer sequel – sweet, but it could have taken a lesson from onions and had a few more layers beneath the surface.

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