Shrek, like Harry Potter, is one of those entertainment vehicles that transcended the gap between target marketing groups. Harry Potter is appealing to both kids and adults, making it a huge hit. It's a difficult balancing act that is threatened by its own popularity...it's very possible for a name or product to be a victim of its own success, thereby turning off future readers/viewers.
Shrek's hit that point with Shrek the Third.
For kids, Shrek was fun to watch. The characters are either cuddly or blubbery, but never really mean (even the dragon's kind of cute). Shrek himself, supposedly a horrible ogre, looks like a green pile of Playdoh. He's not all that threatening, and he's not supposed to be. And since Shrek is gross, he's got a certain prepubescent boy appeal.
For adults, Shrek was packed with twists on old fairytales, winking nods to familiar voice actors in unfamiliar roles (I'm apparently the only one who got some of the Eddie Murphy jokes in the second Shrek film), and plenty of riffs on movies. Keeping a film amusing for the little ones without aggravating adults, or amusing for the adults without boring the kids, is high art. The path is littered with the corpses of movies who couldn't balance it well (see Chicken Little).
By the time we reach Shrek the Third, the producers had to figure out which he wanted to do: make a movie that's filled with more riffs on fairytales, or actually treat Shrek as a real personality who grows and develops. Shrek 2 managed this amazing feat by shifting locales: Shrek went to the equivalent of Hollywood, fertile ground for humorous allegories and wisecracks. He was also getting to know his in-laws, and certainly all the adults in the audience could appreciate the hilarity that inevitably ensued as two very different groups of people tired to get along.
So Shrek the Third tackles next logical step of having a baby.
The lovable cast of ridiculous misfit fairytale characters is barely in evidence. Taking up the task of mocking fairytale tropes are fairytale villains. Sort of. We've got the Evil Queen from Snow White, Hook from Peter Pan, some dwarves, the Headless Horseman, and a lot of evil trees. I don't know about you, but I don't think of evil trees when I think of fairytale villains. And oh yeah, for some reason one of the bad guys is a cyclops. Can't forget the cyclopes. They couldn't come up with more recognizable fairytale villains? THIS is the most hilarious it gets?
In the middle of this villainous rebellion, led by Prince Charming, Shrek goes off on a quest to find an heir to the king. The heir's a punk named Arthur (as in, King). Only he lives in a fairytale version of high school. Which would be really funny, if Shrek actually stayed there. High school jokes were a potential for comedy goldmine, like the Hollywood jokes. But alas, it's not to be. Shrek leaves, with Donkey and Puss in tow.
Speaking of which, Donkey is now utterly extraneous. Puss is hilarious and entertaining, Donkey is barely relevant. With so many characters, it's getting crowded in the Shrekiverse. And me being a cat owner has nothing to do with my bias towards Puss, I'm sure.
The movie wraps up with a Grrl Power counterattack, and finally we see the Shrek we came to see. Watching all the fairy princesses gather together to use their unique powers to finally save themselves is great. The Snow White scene made the audience laugh. But the rest of the princesses are barely used, and we're once again back to Adultsville.
In the end, we get a nice little sermon about everyone getting along, about how we shouldn't marginalize people by making them out to be villains, and about Shrek accepting that he's finally going to be a dad. Ironically, my wife is six months pregnant, so this movie was a lot more relevant to me than I expected. Worries about being a good father? Check. Concerned that the kids will be too much to handle? Check. Not sure how domestic life will become part of your own manly personality? Check. Man, Shrek really was hilarious...I was laughing out loud at several parts!
Then I noticed I was the only one.
You see, there weren't that many dads in the audience. It was stuffed to the rafters with mothers and their children though. And those kids were squirming through much of the movie, because...because dad jokes are funny to dads and dads-to-be.
The movie ends with Shrek asking Fiona. "The kids are in bed...what do you want to do now?" That's a decidedly adult joke, but don't worry...they end up falling asleep instead.
Yep. Shrek seems a bit tired.