From the very first appearance of the giant Scottish ogre, Shrek has been about fart and poop jokes. By infusing the overly familiar storytelling conventions of children's classics with the kind of laughs the MPAA tags as "crude humor," the producers found a financially successful way to seem both edgy and familiar to kids and parents alike. In the first film, the exhausting energy helped carry it along, but the message about beauty being on the inside got lost among the endlessly cruel short jokes made at the expense of bad guy Lord Farquaad. Shrek 2 was as a real mess, telling a story too emotionally complicated for the average child, and relying too heavily on uncreative pop-culture references for humor. However, the director of those first two films, Andrew Adamson, abdicated the director's throne to Chris Miller for this installment, a decision that seems to have given everybody involved a chance to rethink the direction they wanted to take with the most successful DreamWorks franchise.
The confident rhythm of Shrek the Third is apparent from the opening sequences, a series of gags showing that Shrek has a tough time filling in for his father-in-law, the king of Far Far Away, who's become too sick to handle official duties like knighting ceremonies. This humorous sequence works well to set up the story, largely because the pacing allows viewers to take in the detailed animation. Instead of hammering the viewer with the umpteenth variation of Smash Mouth's "All Star," or packing in more jokes per second than we can possibly keep up with, the gags in Shrek the Third actually help move the story along -- and they get maximum laughter. One bit, for instance, finds the court trying to make the ogre appear more regal, resulting in a scene where he's made up like a lime-green Louis the XIV. This scene ends up being hilarious in the premise and in the sight gag as the outfit is full of funny details that provoke more giggles that you'd get with the mere idea of having Shrek in such a getup. Another standout scene finds Prince Charming down on his luck and reduced to acting out his heroics for an unappreciative dinner-theater audience. The humor in this sequence comes not just from how ridiculous it is for the vain prince to have hit such a low, but also because the filmmakers get in more than a few digs about cheap theater. In addition, this sequence pays off in the finale when Charming gets the chance to set right all that went wrong for him in Shrek 2. Miller and the rest of the crew maintain that level of quality throughout almost all of Shrek the Third. All the scenes get maximum impact because they are true to the characters, they always advance the story, and they find something funny to satirize, whether it's pop culture or fairy tales.
The Shrek movies have always aimed to offer a new spin on the tried-and-true conventions of fairy tales, but poop and fart jokes are rarely subversive. Making an ugly, gaseous, and green ogre a heroic figure is certainly unique, but Shrek loses most of that uniqueness when it turns out he's just as brave and noble as any good-looking hero from any straight-laced fantasy -- he just looks funny. Fortunately, this time out, the filmmakers offer some very strong genre commentary thanks to the female characters. The famous fairy-tale princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty team up with Princess Fiona when Far Far Away comes under attack, and instead of sitting around waiting to be rescued, they stand up for their homeland and kick all kinds of butt. This concept pays off in the single funniest scene of the movie when Snow White summons all the animals of nature with her familiar sing-song, and then has them storm the castle when her lilting soprano voice slides from an ethereal melody into the opening cry of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." Once again the movie works on multiple levels, getting the viewer to laugh at the pop-culture smarts, and the twisting of fairy-tale clichés, as well as advancing the story (because really, what's a fairy tale without a good castle storming). What's genius about the moment is that the joke isn't in hearing the Zeppelin tune, it's in how massively it contrasts with the sweet innocence of Snow White, an innocence that this film transforms into a girl-empowerment lesson that offers a needed corrective to the insidious Disney Princesses marketing campaign of the last few years.
Shrek the Third finally fulfills the artistic potential of the first two movies, offering a solidly constructed story with a good moral, some welcome genre commentary, and a bunch of quality laughs, all presented in a style that exudes confidence and craftsmanship. Instead of treating the movie like the cash cow it is, DreamWorks cared enough to make a movie that actually seems worthy of the gargantuan box-office numbers they expected.