DreamWorks seems bored with the ogre who laid the golden egg. Shrek Forever After, the fourth film in the lucrative franchise, barely tampers with the Shrek formula (one-liners, flatulence jokes, pop tunes) and not enough to breathe life into the exhausted series.
Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is feeling buried under the celebrity, the diapers and the play dates with Donkey's dragon-donkey toddlers.
"I used to be an ogre. Now I'm a jolly green joke," he complains to Fiona (Cameron Diaz).
The fellow who can fix that is Rumpelstiltskin, a lawyerly wizard with a contract and a long-held grudge against the ogre. He trades Shrek the chance to live one day, "like it used to be" before family and fame, in exchange for one day earlier in Shrek's life. Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) makes sure that earlier day was the date of Shrek's birth.
Shrek finds himself in a time when he's feared, no longer a celebrity, no longer friends with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) or Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), and no longer married to Fiona, who grew up to be the angry leader of the ogre underground resistance to Rumpelstiltskin's rule.
Witches ravage the land of Far Far Away and terrorize even the ogres. Shrek has to somehow get that "True Love's Kiss" from Fiona again, and quickly, to set this world right.
The animation has improved from film to film, and Forever After has textures and depth of field (thanks to the 3-D) that make the original Shrek seem primitive. They play around with the 3-D a bit — a little dragon flying, a few characters hurled at the camera.
Lots of characters sing in this one — Banderas (the funniest thing about the movie) does a little Bob Marley, Murphy's Donkey covers Madonna. Rumpelstiltskin hires a certain flute-playing hit man from Hamelin to pipe the ogres to their doom.
But DreamWorks let artist, screenwriter and sometime director Walt Dohrn do the generic Rumpelstiltskin voice, handing over the third most-important character in a billion-dollar franchise to a voice with no menace or personality.
The laughs are few and far between — Puss has lost his boots but gained a lot of weight, and witches in a fairy tale trailer park launch into Dueling Banjos.
Though the It's a Wonderful Life plot gives the whole arc of the Shrek-Fiona story a heartfelt twist, Forever After still goes down like warmed-over porridge. You don't have to be Goldilocks to think that this time they've cooked their golden goose.