Sure, Okay, But What If...
Shrek Forever After
After the relatively uninspired Shrek the Third, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Shrek series didn't really need to continue. The producers supposed had a three movie plan they were putting into effect and that third movie was the start of that trilogy. If it's bad (and it certainly wasn't good) how does that say for the rest of the films that were coming out? It said to me that I should avoid the films at all costs, so after seeing the first three in theaters I avoided number four.
Having now gone through and watched the series, though, I have to admit that I jumped out at the wrong time. While this fourth entry, Shrek Forever After, isn't as good as the first film in the series, it course corrects enough that it finally produces a sequel that honors what works about the series. It is, in effect, the best sequel to come from Shrek and is the first one that I could see going back and watching, just for fun, on its own.
This four-quel picks up one year after the events of Shrek the Third. Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have spent the last year in their swamp, raising their three little ogre babies, and while everyone else in Shrek's life had taken to living this comfortable family life -- and that includes Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss (Antonio Banderas) helping out as well -- Shrek has slowly gotten ground down by the grind of his life. He just wants a day to himself to relax, to enjoy his swamp, without any family needs or pressure. The pressure gets to him and he acts like, well, an ogre at his kids' birthday party, storming off. That's when Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) steps in.
Years before, Rumpel had planned to take over the kingdom of Far Far Away. At that point Fiona was still locked in her tower and her parents would have done anything to save her. Had they signed away their kingdom to Rumple he would have cast a spell that freed her. However, his plan was interrupted because Shrek saved Fiona right out from under everyone's noses. Now the little pixie sees another way to get what he always wanted. He offers Shrek a day of joy, one perfect day, so long as Shrek signs a contract that gives Rumple one other day of Shrek's life. Not realizing the deal he was agreeing to, Shrek signed, and Rumple took the day Shrek was born. Adult Shrek got his perfect day, with all the towns people fearing him. It's great, right up until he finds out that his wife and kids no longer exist. He's no in an alternate reality where he never existed at all and, after a single day, he too will vanish. He has to find a way to set everything right before the spell ends, or this reality will be the only version ever.
Although "What If" stories aren't part of fairy tales they are common occurrences in pop-culture now. For all its playing in the superhero genre, Shrek is kind of a superhero. He's fast, he's strong, he's the best warrior around, but he's also smart and witty and good with a quip. He's always the guy that the kingdom relies on to fix all their problems. In that regard, then, setting up an alternate continuity, "What If" tale makes sense. This is a series with a deep continuity that has no problem referencing and building on what came before. Exploring all that from another angle allows the series to venture through that history in a whole new light.
As a bonus it also means that the series gets back to what works best: focusing on its characters. Shrek being an ogre, just wanting his little slice of swampy heaven, is a core part of his character. As much as he loves his family it is true to him that, once in a while, he needs a break. But when they're gone he clearly and immediately misses them, and forcing him to have to fight to get them back just reinforces all that's important about his character. It also puts a stronger focus on Fiona as well (who tended to get lost in the third movie). Their interactions, forcing Shrek to woo the women he loves once again, gives the film a core emotional heart that works really well.
This is really the strongest credit to the movie: it knows that Shrek and Fiona are our focus. They're what make not just this film but also all the good moment and best entries in the series. When the films have divided these characters up and pushed them on their own paths, like Shrek going off to get Artie in the third movie, it's lost that heart. The most forgettable moments in the sequels come because the films lost sight of what was good, exchanging heart for back pop-culture references and parody.
To the film's credit, it does downplay those worst impulses from the sequel. We don't get a lot of pop-culture references as jokes this time around. In fact, this film is positively restrained, keeping it's weird referential humor to world building (such as Pinocchio's Chuck E. Cheese-style party place for kids, or the Star Tours wagons that go through Shrek's swamp) which is actually funny than just recreating scenes from other movies. And the film finds more of a sarcastic bite to its jokes, actually letting the characters add their humor to the mix. This was a funny film because the film knew how to handle the humor this time around.
Meanwhile, one of the more annoying trends of the films has been subdued here: the music. While there is still an annoying dance party at the end (because apparently Dreamworks doesn't know how to end an animated film without a dance party), the rest of the needle drops are actually worked properly into the film. There are a couple of folksy songs that are used sarcastically and other subtle tunes that add to the action on screen. The most anachronistic tunes are played by the Pied Piper on his flute, and these are more silly and add their own weird humor to the production. I didn't find the music distracting, which was a change for this series, and I appreciated that.
But really, it all gets back around to Shrek and Fiona. The most important thing this film does is focus on those two to tell a sweet, poignant, important story. They're the core of this series, and have been since Shrek saved Fiona from that tall tower four movies ago. When the films focused on them they work and Shrek Forever After keeps its focus laser-like on the two of them. That creates the best story in the series since the first film, leading to the best sequel as well.
Additionally, with this so far being the end of the main Shrek series, it also means this film works as a solid and fitting send-off for the main characters. You really can't ask for more.