No matter how many times films and TV steal that final subplot from It’s A Wonderful Life, and let some hapless schmoe see what the world would have been like had he never existed, it remains a resonant idea, an affirmation that everyone’s life has meaningful impact. Or at least it does if it’s implemented with a little thought. Shrek Forever After, the fourth in the series of CGI films about a cranky ogre voiced by Mike Myers, instead settles for unlikely plot contrivances, lame gags, and lazy execution. That’s no huge surprise, given the last two Shrek films, but it’s still dispiriting watching a once-promising series make ever-greater commitments to apathy.
Part of the problem is that ever since the first movie’s clever take on “happily ever after,” writers have been exploiting the same tired loophole to make the characters unhappy again: Shrek the ogre really enjoyed being a feared, independent hermit, and feels constrained by his new role as a good-guy husband and dad. (Which might be another resonant theme if it wasn’t three movies old by now.) This time out, he suffers through an excruciating montage of repetitive, shrieky family life before breaking down and making an ill-fated magical bargain with Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who magically gives him a day of happy monsterdom, but twists their contract to erase Shrek from history. That leaves Shrek one day to witness how his story turned out without him, and to nullify the contract before the change becomes permanent.
Just briefly, Shrek 4 toys with a number of potentially meaningful ideas, including that Shrek’s wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) might have been a smarter, stronger person without him, and that parenthood might have come at a cost for her, too. But that spirit of laziness reigns, so conceptual follow-up becomes secondary to watching Eddie Murphy as Donkey, braying out a pop-hit medley while pretending to be a radio. The indifference might be clearest in Shrek’s lame, never-explained failure to tell Fiona the truth and enlist her help, even when she repeatedly asks what’s going on. Or in the way the story plays out, via poop jokes and pro forma chase scenes. Or in the gags repeated verbatim from past Shrek films. Or via the usual eye-rolling choices of pop-music cues. (Two characters meeting? Time for Lionel Richie’s “Hello”!) Or in the closing credits, which recycle old animation of characters not even in this film. Kids’ movies are rarely profoundly thoughtful, but there’s no reason to be this insulting about it, either.