It might not be better than its predecessors, but it's worlds better than other recent animated offerings like Meet the Robinsons or Arthur and the Invisibles. It looks great and has a sweet message and enough laughs to make it worthy of the series.
This is most certainly one of the better-looking CGI productions put to film, and it gets high marks for that. The story--a sort of haphazard account of Shrek (the voice of Mike Myers) and his quest to not be king--is mildly engaging. While that might not be what we've come to expect from the franchise, it still makes for decent entertainment.
The Frog King Harold (John Cleese) is dying, in a comically long scene, and he makes it clear that he wants Shrek as the new leader. When Shrek balks at the gig, the king reveals that there is one other possible heir to the throne. Shrek jumps at the chance to rebuke his ultimate responsibility, and he goes on a quest to find some guy named Artie.
Turns out that Artie (Justin Timberlake) is a geeky high school student with low self-esteem, giving Shrek a chance to play father figure and get the boy hyped for the job. Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) takes over the land of Far, Far Away, with the help of a bunch of fairy-tale villains (Captain Hook, the Cyclops, Rumpelstiltskin), placing a pregnant Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and members of her baby-shower party (Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty) in peril.
There are plenty of modern references to interrupt the fairy-tale settings, as in the past Shrek films. The gimmick is getting a little tired, but it still offers some good moments. Snow White (Amy Poehler) summoning the forces of nature while screaming Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" is a definite highlight, as is a Rosemary's Baby spoof where infants attack Shrek. The film's best new character would be the goofy Merlin the Wizard (Eric Idle), who doesn't wear underwear beneath his robe.
Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) get plenty of screen time, including a sequence where their identities are switched. Donkey has married the dragon from the second film, resulting in some interesting winged offspring.
The subplot involving Timberlake's King Arthur is straightforward and sweet, but it's not a major laugh generator. That pretty much goes for the rest of the picture. Shrek the Third settles for being a charming morality tale over being hysterically funny. It would be truly hard to argue with anybody who considers it a letdown, because director Chris Miller has lost some of the vibrancy and irreverent humor of the prior chapters, exchanging them for simple, solid storytelling.
I say again: This movie looks great. Nobody does CGI hair like the artists behind these films. I found myself admiring cartoon hairdos for much of the running time, especially the head of hair on Prince Charming. They must animate every strand of hair using a normal head of hair as the model. It's insane.
Good hair does not a great movie make, but we do get a pretty good one. Shrek the Third doesn't save the summer-movie season, but it has stopped the bleeding for now. Next up is another part three in a huge blockbuster franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which will certainly sit atop the box office. The second Pirates stunk, so I'm a tad skeptical.