Shrek 2 (U)

Where's the magic?
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The Independent Culture

The not-so-jolly green giant is back, and while Shrek 2 bowls merrily along on the fuel of firecracker wit and knowing pastiche that made the original so memorable, it will come as no surprise that second time around we don't feel quite so discombobulated by its brilliance. Technically, it now goes all the way to 11, as the boffins at DreamWorks refine the visuals to an even higher level of animated sophistication; thematically, however, it makes no advance on the first movie's ingenious subversion of fairy-tale motifs and sly digs at the squeaky-clean image of Disneyland. The constant traffic of sight gags and the introduction of new characters ensure there's hardly a dull moment, but the riskiness of the original has pretty much disappeared.

The not-so-jolly green giant is back, and while Shrek 2 bowls merrily along on the fuel of firecracker wit and knowing pastiche that made the original so memorable, it will come as no surprise that second time around we don't feel quite so discombobulated by its brilliance. Technically, it now goes all the way to 11, as the boffins at DreamWorks refine the visuals to an even higher level of animated sophistication; thematically, however, it makes no advance on the first movie's ingenious subversion of fairy-tale motifs and sly digs at the squeaky-clean image of Disneyland. The constant traffic of sight gags and the introduction of new characters ensure there's hardly a dull moment, but the riskiness of the original has pretty much disappeared.

For Shrek, just settling into connubial bliss with Princess Fiona, a summons to meet the in-laws would always be fraught with unease, especially when the invitation is delivered by a phalanx of royal pipers. Along with Donkey (voiced with familiar motormouthed zeal by Eddie Murphy), the two newlyweds make the trip to the kingdom of Far Far Away, which, with its long boulevards of palm trees and billboard-sized letters on a hillside announcing its name, constitutes the fairy-tale equivalent of Hollywood. Shrek, whose natural habitat is the swamp, feels mighty uncomfortable in this medieval shopping mall of establishments such as Friar's Fat Boy, Burger Prince and Farbucks, and things just get worse when he and his bride step out of their carriage to be greeted by a collective sharp intake of breath - the denizens of Far Far Away aren't used to seeing podginess, or, indeed, green skin.

And it's clear that King Harold and Queen Lillian aren't crazy about Shrek, either. Not since Ben Stiller was given a lie-detector test by Robert De Niro in Meet The Parents has a father treated his son-in-law with such naked disdain, heightened by the consistently querulous tone of John Cleese. Julie Andrews as the Queen at least shows the possibility of thawing. The villain of the piece turns out to be, of all things, the Fairy Godmother (voiced by Jennifer Saunders), who is determined that her son, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), should win the Princess's hand, and blackmails the king into conniving in her scheme. It's a nice touch that the Prince is actually a preening jerk who tosses his blond hair L'Oréal-style - and is it fanciful to see in the Fairy Godmother's bespectacled froideur a glimmer of Anne Robinson?

The plot requires Shrek to set things right by seeking a Happily Ever After potion, while the king dispatches a secret assassin to bump off his hated son-in-law. That this killer is Puss-In-Boots, voiced by Antonio Banderas with a flamboyant Latin lilt that sends up his own Zorro, gives Donkey some competition as the funniest turn in the movie. Donkey knows it too, and when Puss switches allegiance from hit man to helpmate, he duly warns the tomcat that the role of "annoying talking animal" has already been taken. Miaow! That kind of self-referential jokiness is a mainstay of the Shrek phenomenon, and only The Simpsons could stand as its rival for both subtlety of background action and upfront wit. Pop and film culture references zip by at such throwaway speed you barely have time to register them: I caught From Here to Eternity, Lord of The Rings, Flashdance and the Oscar night broadcast, but I dare say I missed a whole lot more. Everyone will get the Mission: Impossible parody with Pinocchio in the lead role, but who could have guessed the wooden boy had a thing for women's underwear?

The rigorous quality control over visual and verbal polish can probably be ascribed to the three directors (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon) and four screenwriters. Shrek 2, like its predecessor, is only 90 minutes long, but one quivers to think how much time has gone into each one of those minutes. The number of names listed on the production credits could fill an army, or at least a crowd scene in Troy. Yet compare it with the very best - the Toy Story movies - and it falls some way short. For one thing, the technical bravura is almost too sophisticated for its own good: the new developments of "bounce shader" and "subsurface scattering" talked up in the production notes are all very well, but when a cartoon achieves such verisimilitude it ceases to look like a cartoon and more like something creepily humanoid. You can applaud the (near) perfection, but you baulk at the calculation. If Cameron Diaz is to be so minutely rendered in voice, movement and facial expression, why not just film Diaz and have done with it?

The second objection is bound up in the first. Given the monumental efforts that have been devoted to the look, it's noticeable how little the film is interested in what's beneath the surface. Having set up Far Far Away as a precursor of Hollywood, the film simply ignores the implications - there's a scene where Shrek and Donkey both swallow a magic potion that makes them better-looking, and the moment cries out for a joke about cosmetic surgery. But none is dared. The inoffensiveness makes the parody feel more like a puff, another instance of Hollywood's appetite for talking about itself. For all its invention, the only types the film actually lampoons are fairy-tale characters. It does so very amusingly, but how much satiric pleasure can be had from seeing Pinocchio, Prince Charming and the Three Blind Mice under the cosh?

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