I loved Shrek to pieces and couldn’t begin to imagine a sequel that would top its gentle, goofy charm or its adroit way of winding several demographics around its little finger at once. As it turns out, Shrek 2 is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years. But I’m far from sure that it’s a kids’ movie anymore, even though, like its predecessor, it’s a thoroughly sugared-up reading of the book, by veteran New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, on which both films are based. Like many gifted children’s writers — among them Hans Christian Andersen and Roald Dahl — Steig, who died last October, didn’t much like children in real life, and he had a poor opinion of families in general. But he understood kids’ innate suspicion of sweetness and light and their gleeful fascination with the macabre, and he never tried to clean up the world for them. Steig’s ogre isn’t just homely — what makes him funny is that he’s hideous, and that he hates most of humanity, children included. There’s no sweet fellow waiting to bust through Shrek’s crusty exterior. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope and remains one to the end, while the woman of his dreams is as magnificently ugly, inside and out, as he is.
Tweaked and claymated for maximal adorability, the Shrek according to DreamWorks was as cuddly as could be. After a little perfunctory growling at some dispossessed fairy-tale characters, it was no time at all before he allowed Princess Fiona and the world’s most garrulous donkey (Eddie Murphy) to warm his none-too-frozen heart. True, Shrek had the courage of its pro-fat convictions. Delivered from her narcissistic fantasies about the handsome prince who would rescue her from her castle, Fiona retained her chubbier, if hardly unsightly, ogre self to marry her swain and sail away in their garlic carriage to live happily ever after in his beloved swamp. But Shrek was more an inversion than a subversion of the standard Prince Charming story, and a good-natured, unthreatening one to boot.
With Shrek 2 — riddled with pop in-jokes and an amiable, if iconoclastic, skewering of classic fairy tales — the franchise doesn’t so much top itself as sail into overdrive, and, from an adult’s point of view at least, it’s none the worse for it. From the moment we’re reunited with Shrek and the missus, the movie is throwing out film references like there’s no tomorrow. We meet Shrek and Fiona, contentedly porked out and frolicking happily in their swamp. After a roll in the waves recalling Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s sultry clinch in From Here to Eternity, they discover there’s trouble in paradise, and its name is in-laws. Having gotten wind of Fiona’s rescue, her parents invite the happy couple to a wedding celebration in the Kingdom of Far Far Away, a divine cross between Beverly Hills and Universal CityWalk, complete with Farbucks Coffee and a doctored Hollywood sign nestled in the hills. Over their first evening meal en famille — either Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or Meet the Parents, depending on when you grew up — King Harold (voiced by a querulous John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews, reprising her regal dignity in The Princess Diaries) try to overcome their shock at their daughter’s altered appearance and her new husband’s table manners. Good soul that she is, the Queen only wants her daughter to be happy, but the King conspires, for mysterious reasons of his own, to pry Fiona loose from her swamp thing and replace him with Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), a blond creep of staggering vanity whose cerebral assets are set close to zero.
Working closely with the prince’s fairy-godmother mum (Ab Fab’s hilariously tart Jennifer Saunders), a blue-rinsed gorgon with all the charm of a ranking Hollywood agent, the King hires an expert to whack Shrek. Puss-in-Boots, the famed ogre killer and Shrek 2’s showpiece as well as a canny bow to the burgeoning Latino audience, is a pintsize, ginger fellow voiced by Antonio Banderas (wildly spoofing his role in Zorro), who can shrink into a giant pair of cute Walter Keane eyes or rise to the swashbuckling occasion as needed. Unluckily for the royal family, Puss takes one look at the Shreks and, seeing soul mates, throws in his lot with them, to the loudly brayed disgust of Donkey, who sees only a sibling rival.
The rest of Shrek 2 is an exuberant bounce through more action-movie send-ups (from King Kong to The Matrix) and irreverent sight gags than you could possibly catch in a single sitting, culminating in a final good-humored poke at the Oscars, hosted by a Joan Rivers whose grinning mug looks only marginally more claymated than her worked-over face in real life. (Shrek’s own transformation into a credible human hunk is stupendous.) Though full of excitable gay wit (Larry King voices a musclebound drag-queen Ugly Stepsister who tends bar at the Poison Apple) and British cheek (it takes real brass to bestow a broad Glasgow accent on the hero of a movie designed to take the global box office by storm), Shrek 2 is rarely mean or cynical. The Shreks are as warmly interpreted as ever by Cameron Diaz and by Mike Myers in a performance that shows up everything that was wrong with his misbegotten feline in The Cat in the Hat. And the fairy-tale characters, however gently mocked, are, after all, the ones who rally to rescue Shrek and company from a sorry climactic mess.
In a world where little girls are modeling themselves after Britney Spears, who would quarrel with a story that throws its weight behind the plump and homely? Still — and it feels almost churlish to say this about a movie that gives such a rollicking good time — Shrek 2 ups the hip-allusive quotient to such a pitch, one has to wonder what’s in it for the little kids to whom the movie has already been pre-sold in the usual hurricane of television ads, toy-store tie-ins and schoolyard word of mouth. There isn’t a child in my daughter’s kindergarten class who isn’t chafing for a date with Shrek 2. Yet it was mainly adults I heard shrieking with laughter in the movie theater. The two little girls accompanying me — bewildered by most everything but the uplifting message and a frankly pandering coda — glommed onto a favorite character, and clung to it with desperate tenacity. To the degree that Shrek 2 attends to little kids at all, it traffics in cuteness: The script, canny as it may be, has about as much to do with Steig’s understanding of the dark side of children’s imaginative lives as a Hallmark card. Given the pointlessly violent crap today’s kids soak up on a daily basis, I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. But I’d almost rather go with Steig’s gleeful malevolence than encourage kids to get hip to the postmodern before their time. In asking small children to go along with the ridicule, however affectionate, of their favorite fairy-tale characters, we may be crafting a depressingly premature generation of ironic kindergartners.
SHREK 2 | Directed by ANDREW ADAMSON, KELLY ASBURY and CONRAD VERNON | Written by JOE STILLMAN, J. DAVID STERN and DAVID N. WEISS | Based on the book by WILLIAM STEIG | Produced by JEFFREY KATZENBERG, ARON WARNER, DAVID LIPMAN and JOHN H. WILLIAMS | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | Citywide