'Shrek Forever After' ends the film franchise on a surprisingly high note

A return to form is rare in movie franchises. Usually, if the first film is good, the second is simply bigger and targeting more money. And if there's a third one, the odds are it'll be even worse. There are exceptions—especially when the trilogies are pre-packaged, like Lord of the Rings—but once a series loses its step, it's hard to recover.

Should a movie franchise extend to four entries, the resulting film is typically a very lazy cash transaction. By then, all of the good ideas have been drained; children of the main characters have often been introduced in a vain attempt to breathe new life into the story; and there's very little charm remaining from the original.

That's what is most surprising about Shrek Forever After (alternately called Shrek: The Final Chapter). Here's a brand name that had very few artistic aims to begin with and got worse with each movie, yet DreamWorks decided to come back for a fourth attempt—and amazingly enough, Shrek Forever After is really entertaining and easily the best installment since the first film.

In addition to raising its game significantly over the lethargic Shrek the Third, which should have slammed the door on the big green ogre, this is the first Shrek in 3-D, and maybe for the first time during this widespread growth in animated movies presented with special glasses, the film actually benefits greatly from the technology.

The quiet, normal life no longer suits Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), who secretly longs to go back to the way things were, when being an ogre meant he was feared. He's stuck in the same dull routine with his family, and serves as a kind of tourist attraction in his swamp. Unfortunately, when he vents those feelings to his wife, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), she takes "the way things were" to mean before he saved her from captivity in the first film.

Following the squabble with his wife, Shrek comes upon Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who is the Far Far Away version of a predatory lender: You make a deal that's way too expensive for you, and way too good for him. Shrek gets roped into a contract: In return for spending one day as the ogre he used to be, Shrek gives up a day from his childhood, a day he doesn't remember.

Unbeknownst to Shrek, Rumpelstiltskin picks the day Shrek was born, because it helps him cash in on another sweet deal: You see, on the day Shrek rescued Princess Fiona, the King of Far Far Away was about to sign away his entire kingdom to rescue his daughter. So if Shrek were never born, Rumpelstiltskin could effectively gain control of Far Far Away.

Oh, that fine print can be a killer.

The story then becomes a save-the-day mission, quite literally: Shrek has to find a way out of his contract before the day he was born is completely gone; if he fails, he won't ever exist. That means recruiting Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to help. The cat has some of the film's funnier scenes, having let himself go from a swashbuckling lothario to a corpulent kitty who now only attacks bowls of cream. Clearly, Puss in Boots has been the most consistently entertaining character in the franchise, which is why he's getting his own spinoff movie.

The wind in the sails of Shrek Forever After, though, is the villain. Rumpelstiltskin is conniving, petty and very, very funny. In a voice cast headlined by big names, it is not Myers, Murphy or Banderas who gets the most laughs. (For the record, Diaz is completely indistinguishable as Fiona; why bother with that paycheck?)

Walt Dohrn—who has spent most of his career writing and directing animated TV shows—makes this movie go. The way the character is written is an obvious and welcome entreaty to adults, who were probably beginning to dread dragging their kids to every lowest-common-denominator animated movie. Shrek Forever After is better whenever he's onscreen, and he's an unpredictable presence in a franchise that had played it very safe for two straight films.

There is no great fanfare at the end of this film, no final piece of the puzzle that ultimately fits together. As usual, it's a credits sequence with the characters gathered around for a performance of "I'm a Believer"—and for the first time in nine years, you might be one yourself. At least Shrek is going out on a higher note.

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