A happy home life for a couple who have overcome great obstacles may be heaven for actual human beings, but it's hell on comedy. What's interesting about a husband and wife who love one another, live in comfort, and get on well with the in-laws even if the husband is fat, green, and uncouth and the wife is an ogre by conversion? Not much a fact of middle-class life Shrek the Third accepts with middle-aged practicality. This latest extension of Shrek the brand doesn't try harder. There's nothing bigger, longer, or uncut about the production, no straining for pop-cultural meta-comedy relevance; and no showstopping to match Eddie Murphy's motormouthed Donkey from the 2001 original or Antonio Banderas' cosmopolitan swordsman, Puss in Boots, three years ago in Shrek 2. But that modesty of goal, executed with efficiency and a few new supporting-character flourishes, turns out to be the movie's small saving grace: Shrek the Third sticks to the swamp it knows best, in a mild climate of palatable jokes about fatherhood, high school, girl power, and a drug-education program for teens that advises ''Just Say Nay.''
I realize that in hotter weather I might fault the movie directed by DreamWorks story artist Chris Miller in his feature debut, it's one of the summer's big-budget, franchise threequels for its lack of ambition. But something in the polished reliability of the machinery appeals to me as an antidote to Spider-Man 3-type overstimulation. (The litany of overmarketed product tie-ins is a different story.)
Plus, I love the princess squad, about whom, more in a moment.
When day breaks this time over the kingdom of Far Far Away, Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers again) has been performing royal ceremonial duties, gamely if clumsily substituting for a dying King Harold (John Cleese), his amphibian father-in-law by marriage to Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Really, Shrek isn't keen on the running-a-kingdom gig. Like our own stubbornly folksy head of state, he's not a grown-up comfortable with the niceties of formality. All he'd like to do is get back to his swampy equivalent of a ranch in Crawford, Tex., and surround himself with vermin. Fiona consoles, but she's got news of her own as old-fashioned as anything Lucy Ricardo might delicately break to Ricky on I Love Lucy: She's pregnant.
What a whammy for a guy, huh? The only way Shrek can hand over the royal portfolio he has inherited is to seek out the only other possible heir to the throne and pass the unwanted crown to him even if the candidate, Fiona's distant cousin Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake), is currently a gangly, picked-on high school kid who calls himself Artie. And the only way Shrek can come to terms with fatherhood is well, of course he's going to embrace fatherhood and love his wife and yada yada as countless men and ogres in family movies have done before him, but still, he's appropriately scared. Meanwhile, far, far away from Far Far Away, thwarted, bubbleheaded pretty boy Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) schemes a return to retake the kingdom he feels rightfully should be his by enlisting a posse of fairy-tale losers among them Ian McShane's Captain Hook as his coalition of the sort-of-willing.
These hero's-quest parameters established, Shrek the Third moves smoothly from act to act. At Artie's Worcestershire Academy, a cultural mash of Harry Potter's Hogwarts and the academic groves of Beverly Hills, 90210, Shrek and his travel mates Donkey and Puss in Boots first confuse Artie with Lancelot (The Office's John Krasinski), so strapping and alpha-boy jock-hearty is the latter and so coltish the former, even with Timberlake's energetic charm in evidence. (As Merlin, an unreliable professor of magic whose incantations are a bit rusty, Eric Idle doubles the quotient of Monty Python alumni.) Meanwhile, a palace assault by Prince Charming's forces of evil during Fiona's baby shower binds hostess and royal female guests in unanticipated kick-ass sisterhood.
Considering that competitive divas Snow White (Amy Poehler), Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), and Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph) don't have much use for one another, their transformation into Shrek's Angels (along with a fabulously resourceful Fiona and her admirable mother, voiced by Julie Andrews) becomes the movie's One Cool Thing. In a square tale of facing male adulthood, this little, spiky feminist SNL sketch is one for the girls.