Turning Ugly


Apart from Antonio Banderas' sizzling bout of self-parody as Puss in Boots, who boasts a slashing trademark and Latin bravado akin to Zorro's, Shrek 2 is mostly just dreck squared.

With that green-skinned ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) now married to his fetching ogress Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), the filmmakers touch on a central idea that should carry a primal kick: What happens when Shrek meets the in-laws - the King and Queen of "the Land of Far Far Away"? But co-writer/co-director Andrew Adamson and his collaborators bury that notion in a slew of sour gags depicting Far Far Away as a combination of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, complete with franchises like Pewtery Barn and upper-crust boutiques like Versarchery.

One of the last credits reads, "Farbucks and the Farbucks logo are used with the permission of the Starbucks Corporation." Is product placement any easier to swallow when it's done with a wink and a nod? Except for the blessing of Banderas, and a few flashes of comedic inspiration from Eddie Murphy as Shrek's best friend, Donkey, the whole movie is like that: smarm masquerading as satire.

It was fitting that the first film, a celebration of messiness and misfithood, attacked the wholesome Disneyland ideal in the form of John Lithgow's Lord Farquaad, who created a sanitized country free of warts, smells or wrinkles and exiled genuine freaks of fable from his squeaky-clean kingdom to the bowels of Shrek's muddy marsh. The result was smart, baggy-pants burlesque for all ages. The smallest tykes could snort instinctively at the insanity of expelling three blind mice because of their disruptive personalities, without understanding the corporate ramifications.

But Shrek 2's portraits of Fiona's Fairy Godmother as a glitzy hustler, her father, the King, as a dupe, and his court as the capital of conspicuous consumption, are the stuff of late-night blackout sketches aimed at high school and college kids with three-minute attention spans. Not even the voice of AbFab's Jennifer Saunders can add zing to the script's rough sketch of a sorceress with a fast-food problem who travels with bodybuilder bodyguards and has a mincing pretty-boy son named Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). She's like a female impersonator caught in a female body, promoting specialties that are the fairy-tale equivalents of super-extreme makeovers. Not even John Cleese can bring bite to a King so blustery and weak that he allows this monstrosity to blackmail him (for reasons unexplained until the climax). He, too, tries to sabotage Fiona and Shrek's marriage and hook her up with Charming.

The computer animation of the first Shrek was broad and erratic compared to Pixar productions; the look of this second Shrek film is much uglier. Those with a keen technical eye might notice the improved skin folding and hair flow, but so what? The human characters are devoid of visual personality - the animators don't even have fun with that apex of wholesomeness, Julie Andrews, as the Queen.

When Shrek and Fiona share a bed, there's something engagingly Tony Soprano-like about the ogre at his rest with his gut billowing out over his boxers. But the filmmakers don't give themselves the time to luxuriate in grungy domesticity. They're too busy setting up the convoluted plot and tossing in show-biz gags that go nowhere, like Tom Waits warbling at the piano in a joint called the Poisoned Apple. After Shrek's disastrous first dinner with the King and Queen, he stumbles upon Fiona's girlhood diary. He learns that as a child, when she was a conventional beauty during the day, an ogress by night, Fiona fixated on Prince Charming - a revelation that sends Shrek leaping to get one of the Fairy Godmother's love potions for himself. In the middle of all this, the King hires Puss in Boots to waylay Shrek and murder him; instead, the cat becomes his pal.

The movie has such a haphazard focus that Puss in Boots registers as a mere add-on before Banderas' exuberance takes over. The actor mixes foursquare machismo with feline quickness and asperity. The result is the rare cartoon character with temperament - and one that's combustible and rollicking to boot. He insinuates himself into the action through sheer force of personality. To a lesser extent, so does Murphy's Donkey. But the script undercuts Murphy this time. When Puss in Boots becomes part of Shrek's gang, Donkey says, "I'm sorry, the position of annoying talking animal has already been taken." The line may be a crowd-pleaser, but it reeks of the self-referential humor that undercuts the movie as a whole.

And the way Murphy played him in the first Shrek, Donkey was never just "the annoying talking animal" anyway. He appealed to the younger brother in all of us. He was needy, not dopey: when Shrek told him that his character was complicated - like an onion- Donkey advised him to compare himself to a cake, or better still, a parfait, because everybody likes parfaits.

There's no innocence left in Shrek 2. The helter-skelter story and throwaway gags emerge from a sensibility that confuses gossipy knowingness and jadedness with wit. How else can you explain the moviemakers serving up Joan Rivers doing red-carpet commentary for a Far Far Away gala as if her presence was a coup? Or the barrage of years-old media sensations from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix to Cops and the E! Channel? These choices would feel old even if they were inspired, and they're painfully uninspired - a symptom of the corrupting, self-enclosed entertainment world that the movie means to attack.

Even before Shrek and company get to Far Far Away, Adamson and company afflict the storybook landscape with hit-or-miss media-potshot comedy.

Of course, this kind of thing can produce a cavalcade of giggles when artists have a genuine trash sensibility and a true outsider's streak, like the Zuckers in their Airplane! and Naked Gun days. But when the jokesters behind Shrek 2 stab at vulgarity and excess, the wounds are self-inflicting.

Shrek 2

Starring Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas

Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon

Rated PG

Released by DreamWorks

Time 93 minutes

Sun Score **

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