Shrek (Mike Meyers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are looking aptly satisfied during these happily ever after days. Following the drama of Shrek, the honeymoon looks darn blissful. Skipping through sun-dappled fields (chased by villagers with pitchforks) rolling in From Here To Eternity-ish surf, and snogging in bubbling mudbaths, the ogres have no notion what trouble lies ahead. First clue: they return to the swamp to find Donkey (Eddie Murphy), lonely and yearning for attention.
If sequels are supposed to repeat their precursors’ pleasures — such as they are — then this one appears quite on track. It is all about repetition. Though time has passed, repeated concerns, images, and jokes are in play from frame one. In this case, that frame would be the one introducing a big fat fairy tale book, pages turning and narrating provided by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). He’s extolling his own adventures, riding through dark forests and snowstorms, flipping his hair like Lucy Liu, in an effort to save the lovely Princess Fiona from the fearful Dragon. And yes, that’s the same Dragon from whom Shrek last time saved Fiona and with whom Donkey was last seen entranced. This time, Dragon is missing from most of the action, as Prince Charming soon learns — he missed the first film’s deadline completely, and now has missed his chance to rescue and marry (read: possess) the Princess.
Determined to get his way, Charming complains to his mommy, who happens to be Fiona’s Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and have a mysterious past relationship with Fiona’s dad, King Harold (John Cleese). Dark forces conspire (or maybe it’s just coincidence), when Fiona asks Shrek to accompany her on a visit with her parents (Queen Lillian voiced by Julie Andrews), in their kingdom called Far, Far Away. Though Shrek knows it’s a bad idea (he being the son-in-law who’s unwelcome by definition), he agrees, and Donkey does what he does — he tags along.
So far, so familiar. And yet, DreamWorks’ self-congratulatory, Disney-baiting, and beautifully animated Shrek 2 selects its repetitions carefully (whether this is a function of lack of imagination or tunnel vision is not entirely clear). The trio’s journey this time is not precisely difficult (as was their first), but it does evoke memories of their shared past and take aim at a more general cultural past, that is, the fairy tale traditions and conventional children’s fare (i.e., the sort conjured by Michael Eisner and them). While the sheer precision of the CGI carries this business forward for a few minutes, it’s not long before that innovation wears off and the lack of story kicks in. While the film’s targets are surely worthy, they are also old.
A long shot of the carriage bearing Shrek, wifey, and Donkey reveals a sign that looks like the Hollywood sign, reading, “Far, Far Away.” As they approach the castle, the visitors (accompanied on the soundtrack by “Funkytown”) pass palm trees and boutiques, Starbucks and Burger King, and a billboard advertising “Happy Endings,” courtesy of Fairy Godmother herself. Following a tense greeting on the grandiose castle stairway (witnessed by loyal subjects gathered to provide colorful background, and, as the animators tell it to HBO, a chance to show off their ability to make assorted fabrics and jewelry), the royals and ogres sit down to a dinner that turns rambunctious and then just ugly, as the males fight for dominion.
Harold throws in with Fairy Godmother (who fails to persuade Fiona that dancing furniture, à la Beauty and the Beast, is her heart’s desire), agreeing to do away with his son-in-law, to clear the way for Charming’s egotistical wooing. To that end, the King skulks off to the scary Poison Apple Inn, where Captain Hook (Tom Waits) plays piano and drinks are served by a transgendered Ugly Stepsister (Larry King). Here he locates an assassin, namely, the legendary Puss-in-Boots. Voiced by Antonio Banderas, Puss not only offers up a nifty parody of Zorro, but also puts on a big-sad-eyed kitty face when he anticipates the failure of his more overtly aggressive strategies — swordfighting, clawing, hurling himself at his opponent.
Cute, confident, and utterly stylish in his feathered hat, Puss confronts Shrek and Donkey in the woods: “Ha ha!” This just before he cuts his initial — “P” in Zorro-esque slash– into a nearby tree. At first, he threatens Donkey, who claims the “position of annoying talking animal” for himself, but eventually he grows on even this most insecure of opponents. In Donkey’s defense, Puss is hard to resist, this despite or because of his timeout from a fight to cough up a yucky hairball.
Puss’ fuzzy hijinks aside, he mos def has Banderas’ charismatic freshness going for him. Whereas everyone else in sight is delivering what you’ve seen before, in the first Shrek if not elsewhere — broguey ogre, spirited princess, smarmy prince, angling stage mother — Puss is downright strange, and erratic to boot. Even when the plot devolves into ’80s music montages, wily Puss is depressed at the bar, crying into his milk (“I hate Mondays!”) or denying knowledge of the catnip he’s just been busted with (“That’s not mine!”). Unfortunately, he is called on to “enliven” proceedings by singing and dancing “La Vida Loca” against a splashy backdrop, an odious number if ever there was one. (Can we all move on from the stereotypes attached to the Latin Explosion, please?)
The moral of this version of Shrek is much the same as the moral of the original, wrapped up, again, in Fiona’s decision as to whether she will be an ogre or a humanish-animated girl. While Shrek 2 ostensibly celebrates difference over conformity, it settles for what’s paid off before.