Given that “Shrek Forever After” is the first film in the franchise in 3-D, it’s surprisingly flat — and we’re not just talking about the look of it.
This fourth and allegedly final installment in the series is lifeless, joyless and woefully devoid of the upbeat energy that distinguished the earlier movies — well, at least the first two. If “Shrek the Third” from 2007 felt tired, “Shrek Forever After” is practically narcoleptic.
Brief bursts of manic energy give way to long, heavy stretches that drag. Most of the hackneyed pop culture references of its predecessors are gone, mercifully, but so is the fun. This time, the big, bad ogre is having a mid-life crisis — not exactly a hoot for the kids in the audience, and their parents can suffer through that at home for free.
As for the animation, presenting it in 3-D doesn’t add a whole lot. More often, it consists of stuff being flung at you in gimmicky fashion. After this summer, when about a half-dozen movies will be leaping out at us in 3-D, can the whole trend just go away? Please?
And the frustrating part is, the “Shrek” movies didn’t need an added dimension: They already had an impressive visual scheme all their own. The texture of the surroundings that made the franchise stand out among a slew of animated fare — the tactile nature of the grass and trees, the water, Donkey’s fur — gets obliterated when rendered in 3-D. And so in theory, all that’s left is the story, but that doesn’t reach out and grab us either.
As directed by Mike Mitchell (“Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” “Sky High”) from a script by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke, “Shrek Forever After” finds the lovable green dude (voiced as always by Mike Myers) increasingly disenchanted with his subdued, family-man existence. The triplets he had with wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are a year old now, and he realizes that each new day is the same as the last (in a sequence straight out of “Groundhog Day”).
After being repeatedly tormented at his kids’ birthday party to “do the roar” that made him famous — one of a handful of jokes that are funny the first couple times but get beaten into the ground — Shrek loses it. He misses the simple pleasures of being a fearsome ogre: terrorizing villagers, wallowing in the mud, etc. He throws a tantrum.
Blinded by his frustration, he enters an ill-advised contract with the obviously evil Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to revisit his old life for one day. But this sends him to an alternate universe where the land of Far, Far Away, as he knew it, no longer exists. Fiona isn’t his wife but rather a warrior princess leading a rebellion; his best friend, Donkey (Eddie Murphy), is still perky and sassy but doesn’t know him; and, most troubling purely from a survival standpoint, ogres are being hunted in the woods.
That’s right, it’s the old alternate-universe bit.
So Shrek must befriend Donkey and woo Fiona to make everything right again: basically, repeat all the steps he went through in part one, which only reinforces the lack of originality now that we’ve reached part four.
An attempt an injecting some novelty with the Rumpelstiltskin character also falls flat: He’s tiny but hugely obnoxious. It’s one thing to have an over-the-top villain if he’s a compelling, well-developed figure. This guy is just off-putting. The only thing that changes about him are the wigs he wears for various occasions.
Thankfully, Antonio Banderas returns to voice the swashbuckling Puss in Boots — only in Shrek’s weird new world, the kitty has gotten so lazy and overfed as Fiona’s pampered pet, he can’t even buckle his own belt. Still, Puss remains the most consistent source of comedy in the “Shrek” series. Here’s hoping that when the character gets his own movie spin-off, he’ll be able to stand on his own two paws without the needless aid of a third dimension.
"Shrek Forever After" opens Friday.