It’s fitting that the most significant new character in Shrek 2 is a cat. The one thing they needed most was to chase away the specter of The Mouse.
When the original Shrek became a $260 million blockbuster in 2001, it was almost certainly the eye-popping computer animation and the anarchic comic sensibility that kept audiences coming back. Even if they grooved to the “fairy tales perpetuate a screwed-up perspective on life” subtext, viewers probably weren’t obsessing over all the ways the film took swipes at Disney, the primary purveyor of that fairy-tale perspective.
The film, on the other hand, was completely obsessed with Disney. Peel away the Matrix gags and the we-can-make-hair-look-real technology, and you had something full to bursting with pot shots at the Mouse House. Never mind that Shrek’s smug sense of political-correctness superiority was misplaced in a movie that dressed itself up in fart humor. It was as though producer and DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg—once a Disney production chief—had to exorcise his demons with a feature length nose-thumbing.
Shrek 2 hasn’t entirely gotten the Disney-bashing bug out of its system, but the creative team seems much more interested this time around in creating their own fun than in bashing the fun created by someone else. Picking up where the original left off, the sequel finds Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) returning from their honeymoon, where they find an invitation to the kingdom of Far Far Away. Fiona’s parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) await to grant their blessing, so the newlyweds—accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy)—head off for a family gathering.
But King Harold has expected that Fiona would be free of her curse and paired with Prince Charming (Rupert Everett)—not a green dumpling with an ogre for a husband. And an uncomfortable “guess what’s coming to dinner” party—with Harold playing Spencer Tracy to Shrek’s grouchy Sidney Poitier—does little to change his mind. He’s determined to be rid of his new son-in-law by any means necessary, whether it’s with the assistance of a not-so-nice Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) or by hiring the hit-cat Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).
Unsurprisingly, there’s not too much messing with the Shrek formula, despite the presence of new co-directors (along with returner Andrew Adamson) and a new writing team. Pop culture jokes fill the frames, from nods to The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man to mock brand names in Far Far Away (Versarchery; Farbucks Coffee). The animation continues to allow characters an amazing range of emotions. And of course, Shrek is going to break wind a few times to keep the kiddies giggling.
But something about the humor feels more exuberant this time around. While Banderas deserves a lot of credit—providing a surge of energy with a sly performance that makes Murphy’s Donkey feel redundant—the big boost comes from a story that finds its own voice as something other than the anti-Disney. Even the obvious references to Disney films—including a wonderful Beauty and the Beast-styled production number for “The Fairy Godmother Song”—feel more playful than sardonic. It’s fun with an edge, but without a chip on its shoulder.
Not that it doesn’t stumble occasionally. It’s hard to imagine that someone thought the umpteenth iteration of a slob at a fancy dinner thinking his finger bowl was soup would be hilarious, and Donkey does often feel like an afterthought. It’s essentially the same story of looking beyond appearances, only without the constant sniping at the Big Rodent in the Room. In telling a tale of getting comfortable in your own skin, Shrek 2 finds the franchise finally looking comfortable in its own.
SHREK 2 , ***, Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Rated PG