Midlife crises cause some men to buy Stratocasters or dump old spouses. In the case of the fat green alpha male in Shrek Forever After, the chafe of marriage and fatherhood has led the celebrity ogre to romanticize the bad old days when he was a bachelor swamp thing who scared the populace witless. So when the devious magic-broker Rumpelstiltskin (voiced by Walt Dohrn) offers a deal that includes a day of freedom, Shrek (Mike Myers) accepts. Bad move. Rumpel is the evil twin of Clarence the good angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. He effectively turns Shrek into Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, horrified into action — and repentance — by the vision of what the kingdom of Far Far Away would have become had he never been born and Rumpel ruled the world.
There’s a soft, middle-aged complacency to the well-oiled mechanics of Shrek Forever After, the fourth and (possibly but never say never) last episode of the now classic spoofy animated fairy tale based on William Steig’s beloved 1990 children’s book. The plump green princess bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is back, as are Shrek’s motormouthed buddy Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the suave feline Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). But what was once a fresh, self-referential twist on the vulturish consumption of pop culture when the first Shrek debuted in 2001 has become a lazy corporate tic. Talking over the heads of kids, the enterprise counts on adult audiences to forgive the unoriginal storytelling and, one more time, settle for the game of spot-the-reference, never mind that the references crib from the works, songs, catchphrases, and punchlines of others for their charms. (The hip-by-proxy syndrome includes a pile-on of current pop culture darlings to voice secondary characters, including Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, Glee’s Jane Lynch, and Craig Robinson from The Office.) Everyone involved fulfills his or her job requirements adequately. But the magic is gone, and Shrek Forever After is no longer an ogre phenomenon to reckon with. Instead, it’s a Hot Swamp Time Machine. B-