Letter From The Editor - Issue 40 - July 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2010

That's all, folks

'Shrek' franchise concludes with a mediocre finish

Shrek Forever After
Paramount Pictures
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenplay: Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke
Starring: The voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Walt Dohrn, Jon Hamm and Craig Robinson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
(out of four)

Has there ever been a franchise that has completely run out of steam, kept plowing ahead with another sequel, and been the better for it? Rebounded with another terrific entry in the series? I'm sure there are examples, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.

And reboots don't count. The 007 brand gets fitted with a new Bond every decade or so; a superhero gets a new face, a new origin and a new style. But in the case of a reboot, you're essentially talking about a new series altogether. When it comes to a linear movie series, once it hits the skids, that's usually it.

OK, I just thought of one. Back to the Future. Second movie stunk, third one rebounded a bit. So we've got at least one example. It just took me a while to think of it.

Of course, that trend won't stop anyone from continuing to plow along with an established brand, even at the expense of its credibility. 2007's Shrek the Third was an irritating wreck, full of bland re-hashes of the conflicts, jokes and pop-culture references that had worked the first two times around. When your franchise gets to the point where all it's doing is re-hashing itself, clearly things have run their course. It's over. Move on.

But move on they didn't, and so we have Shrek Forever After, the fourth and presumably final entry in the series that - many now forget - was so memorable in its original incarnation nearly a decade ago. While this Shrek doesn't quite match the blandness of the previous film, that's really not much of a compliment. None of it is particularly inspired, though it's not terrible, either. It's just . . . there. The filmmakers seem content to fill time with half-hearted callbacks to the previous films instead of giving this one its own identity.

Forever After basically apes the It's a Wonderful Life formula, with our loveable ogre learning a predetermined lesson about the meaning of life and happiness. Only instead of an angel pushing him along the way, it's Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) offering one of his patented double-edged swords. Shrek (Mike Myers), frustrated with the monotony of the married-with-kids lifestyle, just wants things to go back to the way they used to be - when townsfolk were terrified of him (instead of asking for autographs, as they do now), when he could eat and sleep and bathe in peace.

As happenstance would have it, along comes Rumpelstiltskin on a particularly dreadful afternoon for Shrek, and makes him a deal - he can have one day of his old life again, in exchange for one random day from his childhood. Easy bargain, right? Well, except for the fact that Rumpel decides to take the day Shrek was born - which, through a series of events explained by the film's prologue, makes Rumpelstiltskin the king of Far Far Away. Our hero has 24 hours to discover and carry out the exit clause, or he'll disappear from existence completely.

I suppose that, for a franchise running on fumes, introducing a Bizarro World hook is about the best we could expect. Otherwise we'd have to have a movie about little ogre babies growing up and potty training and then going to school and then dating and then . . .well, just think Cheaper by the Ogre's Dozen. And we wouldn't want that. But instead of seeing the new twist as an opportunity for imagination and reinvention, the filmmakers were content just to follow in the predecessors' footsteps, one reference at a time.

Watching the Shrek series over the years has reminded me too much of all those TV series that plow through all the obvious plot developments and end up hitting a narrative wall. You know the ones I'm talking about - say there's a young romance that the show centers around. Well, after a while, they either have to break up or they have to get married. And once they're married, well, there's nothing for the writers to do but write in a pregnancy subplot. And then the birth, and then the raising of the kids, and by that point everything that happens is purely inevitable, and therefore uninteresting. We can usually see this happening a season or two in advance. We yell at the TV: "No! Don't jump right into the marriage storyline already! Don't get her pregnant yet! We know where this is going! Stop!" In fact, I say we replace the phrase "jump the shark" with "have the young couple get married and pregnant."

What happens is, the show's writers end up writing themselves into a corner because they follow only the most obvious steps. Shrek the Third - aside from just being terribly unfunny - wrote Shrek and Fiona into a corner by giving them babies. Nothing wrong with babies; we all love babies. But the obvious wrongheadedness of that narrative choice is especially transparent this time around, as the filmmakers resort to basically backtracking, taking the ogre babies almost entirely out of the picture. They knew they wrote themselves into a corner, and Shrek Forever After is their way of circumventing that problem.

A fine strategy, I suppose. But by this point, even with the Bizarro version of Far Far Away, even with new characters like Rumpelstiltskin and the Pied Piper, none of it even feels relevant. It just feels like they're killing time.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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