Are we there yet? 2010’s fourth and hopefully final entry in DreamWorks’ Shrek franchise, ominously titled Forever After, simultaneously feels tired and haphazardly energetic. The story almost doesn’t matter as the film barrels through scene after scene without stopping to breathe, a spastic child on a destructive sugar high. Did I expect more? Not quite, but I did hope. The first film– and it’s hard to believe that Shrek hit theaters close to a decade ago– felt invigorating and somewhat fresh, but nine years of milking the series for gobs of cash has worn off any good will the original generated and left the series in the unenviable position of both being unsuccessful financially and disparaged critically, which is to say nothing of how much more evolved competing titles and companies have become these days.
In Forever After, our green, cantankerous hero develops an identity crisis as he weighs his birthright (ogre) against the hand life has dealt him (a loving wife, three kids, wonderful if loquacious friends, and a gracious, adoring public following). How did the days of his ogre-hood fly by so swiftly? After making a mess of the first birthday party thrown for his and Fiona’s (Cameron Diaz) children, Shrek falls in with Walt Dohrn’s Rumpelstiltskin and ends up in an alternate timeline where the former was never born, and where the latter is king. Oh, and Shrek has but a day to undo his opponent’s magic before the spell becomes permanent, but that hardly matters.
Part of Forever After‘s woes stem from a misguided sense of urgency. The threat of Shrek being blinked out of existence forever doesn’t feel immediate at all, but the film soldiers forward stoically anyways and never really takes the time to invest itself in either villain or plot. It’s a rush job, so singularly focused on getting from point A to B to C that the picture rarely allows itself to simply be fun. Even when it does, its merriment often feels unearned, if not forced. It’s as though the writers vaguely grasp that they should be having a good time with the story– after all, it’s child’s entertainment first and foremost– but actively chose to incorporate all of those beats in the most inorganic ways possible. The response to this is surely along the lines of, “Well, it’s a kid’s movie”, but when rival animation studios are putting out that precise product without similarly shoddy scripts, that’s hardly a viable excuse. And since we’re on the subject, why should children’s movies ignore structure in plot and narrative in the first place? Such media requires thoughtful construction just as much as adult fare, unless one wishes to posit that kids just need to be pandered to instead of communicated with and that “entertainment” is interchangeable with “placation”.
Giving the film some credit: It looks pretty great, but with years of advances in technology this should be a given at this point. And in retrospect, DreamWorks’ earlier 2010 release How to Train Your Dragon had far stronger aesthetic sensibilities and notably better craftsmanship with respect to its animation, so truthfully I’m damning Forever After with faint praise. While several of the film’s sets and visuals really pop– the refuge of the ogres rebelling against Rumpelstiltskin is totally wonderful and woefully under-visited– Mitchell and the animators fail to elevate the picture enough to really raise it above its predecessors or its contemporaries. Nothing new gets brought to the table here; maybe that’s not a terrible thing, since in total I like the franchise’s look, but for the (supposed) last installment of the series I’d expect the creators to pull out all the stops in order to out-do what’s come before. Instead, Forever After just looks like…every other Shrek film. Which feels somewhat disappointing.
Keeping in-theme, so too do the actors add as little as possible to the characters they’ve spent three other movies developing. Maybe Myers can get away with just letting Shrek be Shrek, but once the fix is in and the big lug has been magically whisked away to Rumpelstiltskin’s anti-Far Far Away the supporting cast has no excuse for simply playing their characters in the way they’ve grown accustomed over the rest of the series. Diaz presents the biggest offense here, as Fiona undergoes the most drastic change between worlds by transitioning from a loving and warm mother and wife to a detached, fierce warrior leading the ogre rebellion against the crown, and yet the actress never modifies her approach to bringing the character to life. There’s too much same-ness going on here, and others– such as Murphy– are guilty of it too.
In terms of casting, the film’s greatest crime lies in wasting the talents of Craig Robinson, John Hamm, and especially Jane Lynch; all three are brought in to voice characters who, frankly, could have been totally cut from the plot without changing more than a beat (and that one beat involves launching chimichangas at witches, so I can’t say that I’d have been that fussed over its loss). Helpful advice: If you’re going to bring three talents of their caliber on board, give them something to do. Their complete unimportance to Forever After‘s narrative, mixed up with the listlessness of the primary cast, becomes a huge drag and killjoy really, really quickly.
Maybe the biggest reason Forever After reads as so cheerless has less to do with technique than it does with the almost appallingly cynical note the story commences upon. The film slides into an It’s a Wonderful Life groove by way of patriarchal reluctance; Shrek longs for the days of his prime when he was just an angry ogre and things were simple, disdaining his present role as a family man. While “adult man rebels against parenthood” treads no new ground, the lack of freshness isn’t what brings the film down, but rather the treatment of this particular element; Shrek’s unbelievable selfishness (literally, it’s quite hard to swallow just how narrow-minded and hoggish he behaves) almost had me rooting against him the entire time. The film refuses to establish precisely why we should care that Shrek must follow the exit clause in the contract he signed with Rumpelstiltskin (mild interjection and it’s possible I’m nitpicking, but what should be something of a menace comes off as nothing more than a lazy and uninspired plot device; why does this guy feel the need to include exit clauses in his contracts at all?), and why he deserves a second chance with his family life. The only palatable reason that we’re given for his sudden turnaround and newfound desire to be a husband and father is that, frankly, life in Rumpelstiltskin’s bizzaro world sucks way, way worse than life at home.
There’s no genuine satisfaction in a coerced catharsis.
At the end, Forever After feels kind of purposeless. After another round of Shrek wrestling with his nature versus accepting the circumstances of his life, there’s a distinct impression that he simply hasn’t learned anything over the course of the series. Mitchell and writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke easily could have kept the story fresh without using the eponymous character’s own recalcitrance as the catalyst responsible for driving the plot, since going back to the well only ends up making the whole film feel stagnant. After a shade under a decade, I can’t deny that the grumpy ogre has changed in some ways, but he hasn’t been allowed to evolve in maybe the most obvious and perhaps necessary ways, so ultimately what’s the point of revisiting those elements a fourth and final time? Even when Forever After ends on a positive note, after all of this time I have no faith that Shrek will refrain from going back to his old ways. The film provides closure, but uncertain and shaky closure; in other words, not the most considerate way to close a franchise.