A while ago, I got lost. I’ll admit it. I stopped keeping track of which Shrek was in theaters. Somewhere in all the previews for no less than four Shrek movies, I wondered why they kept beating a dead horse. After all, the first one was great. The second one wasn’t as good. And they still had the nerve to produce a fourth!
The movie opens with the saga’s usual animated sarcasm and humor. The irony in the portrayal of Shrek’s “domestic bliss” will probably strike home with many people. I’m sure more than one father will sympathize with the stress of always having to fix the outhouse, oversee play dates, change diapers, and having the marriage bed invaded by its crying products at odd hours.
But those who have settled into domestic bliss, and who sometimes resent it, will probably be struck by Fiona’s words to Shrek. After reminding him that he has a wife who loves him, a house, three smiling children, and friends who care about him, she says, “You have everything Shrek. Why are you the only one who doesn’t see it?”
Even after Fiona’s impassioned plea, Shrek still doesn’t see the beauty of what he has. Perhaps he has disconnected with the world around him because he has connected with the intensity of something beyond it. Or perhaps he’s just going through his middle age crisis. But in his despair, Shrek signs a deal with the notorious Rumpelstiltskin that changes his world. In exchange for one day of his comfortable old life as a feared ogre, Rumple takes the day of Shrek’s birth. Once his 24 hours of ogre-paradise are over, Shrek will cease existing in a world where his wife, friends, and family never knew him in the first place.
It’s a Star Trek-style alternate universe, and it gives an urgency to the movie. Once he discovers that he truly values what he had and lost, Shrek is battling the clock to bring that all back. While there are aspects reminiscent of the previous Shrek movies, neither humor nor clever innovation carry this film. Viewers have grown to know and love Shrek and his companions for their quirkiness. Now they passionately root for him in his determination.
This installation into the Shrek saga is indubitably darker than the previous ones. It speaks of anger, jealousy, rivalry, desperation, injustice, and loss. More than any of the previous films, “Shrek: Forever After” approaches moral questions. How far should a parent go to save their child? Where does the demand for sacrifice in family relationships begin and end? At what point does knowing one’s self turn into selfishness?
The jolly green ogre’s latest adventure doesn’t approach an amazing cinematographic experience. Nor does it propound unique and brilliant insights into the nature of existence. But it does successfully and subtly remind people to value what they have, to enjoy the small things, and to be thankful for family and friends.