All About the Green
Cuddly Shrek Sequel Could Stand to be a Little More Ogre-ish
Cute, with a capital "C" and two "u"'s. Cuute. That's the adjective of choice for that which is appealingly amusing without being great art, inoffensive without being bland, and clever without being jarring. A top is cute. A boy is cute. DreamWorks' animated franchise follow-up Shrek 2 is cute. Look, it's almost June, and it's pleasant to sit in a cool theater and watch the cinematic equivalent of holding a sweating glass of lemonade to your fevered brow. What did you want, a cure for cancer?
Those who skipped the first movie will be up to speed in the first few minutes, but if you're stuck in a long popcorn line, here it is: Shrek, the disgustingly lovable ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) has married Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and now must meet the in-laws. Did you have the feeling things might not go swimmingly? Mom and Pop are not keen on having Mr. Stinky for a son-in-law, and after a few awkward situations where the flatulent and crabby Shrek is an aberration in the body-beautiful kingdom of Far Far Away (the town's name is spelled out in blinding white billboard letters on a distant and familiar hillside), he takes his odd-duckness to heart and decides to reform himself--perhaps by enchanted means--for the sake of his marriage. Meanwhile, his father-in-law (John Cleese) is in trouble. Seems that the deal was for his daughter to marry Prince Charming, and now he's in dutch with the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), who pulls up flanked by thugs in a pink tailfin sedan carriage and informs him that if he doesn't fix the situation he might be sitting on a lily pad again, if you catch my drift.
The entire joke hinges on the contrast between fairy tale sweetness-and-light and the slightly twisted reality of entities so perverse they like to dress up as grandmothers and lie in wait for little girls to eat. The film isn't a neo-Freudian, smarty-pants reinterpretation; it's more like acknowledging that Mister Rogers had a sex life, sat on the toilet, or cursed when he hit his finger with a hammer. It's refreshing to imagine these characters having adult lives outside their kiddygarden narratives, and so it's sly and giggly instead of stupid when Puss in Boots is prone to hairballs and licking himself, just like any other cat. And even though there's no need to stop the presses over suggestions that Hollywood is fake and What Really Matters Is What's Inside, I can think of mouse-run movie studios who wouldn't have the guts to create a Fairy Godmother nemesis whose lovey public persona is all smoke-screen PR for her role as ruthless CEO of the largest potion-manufacturing conglomerate in the kingdom, complete with homunculi in hazmat suits mixing glittery tinctures in workplace conditions that would give Karen Silkwood an aneurysm. It's refreshing when, sardonically listing fairy tales that don't contain ogres as romantic leads, the Fairy Godmother tosses in Pretty Woman before taking a breath for air and diving into her next line.
The filmmakers lard the frame with many clever asides and visual gags, and most are clever enough to reward your quick attention. But is it enough to make a funny by plotting two points on the vast plane of pop culture and connecting the dots? When Donkey (voiced brilliantly by Eddie Murphy) sings "Swimming pools . . . movie stars!" on the palm tree-lined road to the in-laws' castle, is it enough to simply lay one reference on top of another, rather than actually write the joke that should follow? It squeezes out a laugh and awards a gold star to the audience member encyclopedic enough to get it but doesn't address the real possibility of wonder, awe, or enchantment that Pixar could apply to the same material, acid edge and all. (And speaking of Pixar, the quality of animation here varies from inspired to average, with the Chaplinesque anthropomorphic Donkey and all his bristly fur and subtle vulnerabilities at one end of the scale and the box-shouldered extras at another.)
A story set in a magic kingdom, no matter how jaundiced or fluffy, misses the point if there's no real sense of magic. The theme of inner beauty trumping all is explicit but not visceral or gleeful. Where Pixar would chop out a line of powdered Altoids and pass you the mirror and the rolled-up dollar bill, Shrek 2 contents itself with serving up a mug of mint tea and letting you feel vaguely refreshed and warm in the tummy for 93 minutes. It's amusing, clever, sweet, fun enough for kids, good enough for adults. You know. Cuute.