Everything old is new again in Shrek Forever After, a highly enjoyable fourth outing that skillfully recaptures that old familiar magic by reintroducing our favorite characters as we've never seen them before. Essentially "How Shrek Got His Roar Back," the visually dazzling final chapter in the saga of the lovable green ogre ends on a definite high note thanks to some gut-busting gags, inspired musical moments, and a clever screenplay that appeals to grown-ups and youngsters alike by touching on some mature themes while never neglecting its storybook roots.
Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) is furious. His plan to take over Far Far Away was foiled when Shrek (Mike Myers) saved the princess just as the desperate King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews) were about to sign their kingdom over to him in exchange for breaking the curse, and the diminutive dictator patiently waits for the perfect opportunity to seek revenge. That chance arrives when Shrek, disenchanted with his domestic life and frustrated over not being a source of fear to the locals anymore, makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to become an ogre for a day in exchange for a single day from his childhood. But everyone in Far Far Away knows not to sign a contract with Rumpelstiltskin, and the next thing Shrek knows, his entire life has been stolen out from under him. Not only that, but Rumpelstiltskin is now king, presiding over his new realm with an iron fist and an army of witches to do his evil bidding. Now, in order to set things straight, Shrek must start over from scratch, reacquainting himself with his old friends and regaining their trust to take back the kingdom from the tiny tyrant who tricked him.
Maintaining the creative integrity of a film series after three installments is no simple task, but, remarkably, screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke have managed to make the familiar feel fresh by using Shrek's eventful past to explore some rather mature themes from a childlike perspective. Parents will laugh knowingly at a whiplash montage that illustrates Shrek's growing disillusionment with parenthood (a scene that captures the absurdity and repetition of exhausting infant-care procedures with uncanny accuracy) and discomfort with domesticity, and their kids will guffaw even harder at the subsequent birthday scene in which his inner ogre is unleashed after lying dormant for far too long. Incredibly, Klausner, Lemke, and director Mike Mitchell succeed amicably in maintaining the momentum of those early scenes, too, piling on jokes at an impressive pace, delivering sight gags that often keep us laughing into the next scene, and offering up musical selections that appeal to audiences of all ages (extra kudos for ingenious use of the Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot" and the Carpenters' "Top of the World"). A bait and switch for the final battle against Rumpelstiltskin yields an involuntary dance number that actually plays into the plot and manages not to come off as gratuitous, setting the stage for an exciting, affecting conclusion.
And for anyone who ever said animation can't convey emotion as well as flesh-and-blood actors, the talented folks at DreamWorks Animation once again raise the bar by rendering expressive characters who manage to both elicit sympathy and keep us in stitches; the desperation on Shrek's face in the early scenes is something all new parents will recognize instantly, and one look at a soaking-wet Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) as he begs Donkey (Eddie Murphy) to lend a helping tongue after a dip in a river will no doubt be enough to crack up any cat lover. Likewise, the use of 3D in Shrek Forever After may be some of the most impressive in recent memory, especially when viewed in the IMAX format.
If this is truly the ornery ogre's last outing on the big screen, it's good to see him go out singing; if the producers of Shrek Forever After let the success of this closing chapter go to their heads and attempt to continue the saga, then chances are we'll all have something to get grumpy about.