Shrek Forever After, the fourth (and, by all accounts, final) installment in the hugely popular series about the personable green ogre, dispenses with many of the hallmarks of the franchise. Considerably toned down are the endless pop-culture references and in-jokes to other movies. There are no Ricky Martin musical numbers this time; there is no re-creation of the bullet-time camera work from The Matrix. For this last chapter, the filmmakers play things relatively straight, resulting in the best Shrek movie to date (or at least the first one I've enjoyed).
Using It's a Wonderful Life as an obvious inspiration, screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke pick up where Shrek the Third left off, with the eponymous hero (voiced by Mike Myers) living happily ever after in the company of his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), their three precocious children and his trusty sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy). Shrek's life is idyllic - so blissful that he's become a tourist attraction for humans in the land of Far Far Away.
Shrek starts to long for the wild days when he could still scare the townspeople with his roar, and when the mischievous powermonger Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) offers him the chance to spend 24 hours as his old self, he seizes on the opportunity. But there's a big string attached. Shrek Forever After was directed with an emphasis on characterizations by Mike Mitchell (Surviving Christmas, Sky High) and uses 3D to subtle but enveloping effect as Shrek is stranded in an alternate universe in which he once again must win Fiona's hand. He must also make allies of former friends (such as Puss in Boots, voiced with the usual gusto by Antonio Banderas) who no longer recognize him.
The story is constructed in a way that requires no previous knowledge of the series, and the movie manages to find fresh humor and sight gags in its storybook universe, from the disgusting things ogres eat to the army of witches obviously patterned after The Wizard of Oz's Margaret Hamilton. The movie is big-hearted and peppered with juicy throwaway bits: I liked the way the Gingerbread Man had to turn around one of the Three Blind Mice, who was cheering in the wrong direction, or the line by the ogre cook (Craig Robinson) about the need for a chimichanga stand on the battlefield, because everyone's going to be starving after waging war. Shrek Forever After isn't essential, but it's breezy and likable and doesn't overstay its welcome - the first summer movie thus far to deliver on its promise to put on a good show.
Shrek Forever After (*** out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday May 21.