The weary Shrek franchise is such a relic that it took all the way until this third sequel for it to employ 3-D. In today’s Hollywood, that’s so ancient it’s practically biblical. The nine-year old series shows its age in Shrek Forever After, its fourth and supposedly final installment, as the creators finally run out of creative ways to spin the basic fairytale satirizing conceit.

To mask that absence of strong ideas, that lack of a compelling non-financial reason for being, director Mike Mitchell and screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke simply regurgitate the original. They do so through the handy alternate history device, often employed by creative minds not named Dickens or Capra to mask failures of imagination.

A misguided contract with Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) gives married father Shrek (Mike Myers) the chance to relive his Ogre outcast days or yore, at a price. The petite, dastardly villain snatches away the day of Shrek’s birth, so that Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and all the staples don’t recognize the green lug. With 24 hours to go before he evaporates into pixie dust forever, Shrek must make Fiona fall in love with him again to break the curse.

After four movies, a comic series, 10 video games and one Broadway musical the life has been sucked out of what once seemed the daring, hip notion of a Jeffrey Katzenberg production mercilessly mocking his former employer Disney. It’s no accident that Shrek received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week. He, Donkey, Fiona and the supporting characters — ranging from the Gingerbread Man to the German Three Little Pigs and an extra whiny Pinocchio — are now so rooted in the cultural firmament that there’s not much fresh or surprising left to be done with them. An anti-establishment milieu has become as much a part of the establishment as ever, as commercialized and watered down as Disney’s straight to video sequels.

It follows, then, that the filmmakers were up against it from the start, facing the unenviable task of finding some way to enliven the formula while still holding true to the franchise expectations. Little bits work, keeping the picture from collapsing into irredeemably painful territory: Rumpelstiltskin makes for an amusing villain, as Dohrn’s solipsistic whining conveys a unique sense of self-loathing. With Murphy in his usual motormouth mode, Donkey offers his usual quota of amusing pop cultural laden quips. An escape from captivity involving witches, flying brooms and a big crystal ball makes effective use of the extra dimension’s enhanced immersive visual possibilities.

Still, the fourth Shrek runs out of steam from the start, cribbing from its predecessors in a last desperate attempt to evoke some of that old magic. Plagiarizing, even self-plagiarizing, is never an adequate solution. By the time yet another cover of “I’m a Believer” plays over the closing credits the sad truth is perfectly clear: It’s time for the denizens of Far Far Away to live happily ever after off the big screen for good.

The Upside: The film has its entertaining moments. Shrek fanatics will treasure the opportunity to bid the series adieu.

The Downside: It brazenly rips off the earlier movies, to an even greater extent than most sequels.

On the Side: Let’s hope Toy Story 3, out June 18, does a better job of enlivening its franchise. Given Pixar’s pedigree, I’m optimistic.

Grade: C+


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