One of the more commonly criticized things about DreamWorks is its inclination towards creating franchises, that once they churn out a successful film, they can proceed to push it to its limits with sequels, spin-offs, TV specials, shit-tons of merchandise, musicals, theme park attractions… and so on. This claim isn’t entirely off base; a week after Kung Fu Panda had a big opening weekend, Jeffrey Katzenberg announced he was planning on six sequels. Now, let’s briefly talk about sequels, and why they largely don’t work. Why are most sequels made? Because the filmmakers believe that there’s another story with these characters in this universe they desperately need to tell? Maybe, but largely, it’s money. Money, money, money. Hollywood is always looking for surefire hits, and what’s more guaranteed for success than a follow-up to an already success? This also explains why a lot of sequels generally are just like the first movie, but with fan-favorite moments accelerated, because if people liked it the first time, then they’ll love seeing it again! But the sequels that break the mold and become significant in themselves are ones that take the themes and ideas of the first one and expand on them, giving us a different look at our characters and expanding their universe. The Toy Story films do this, and wouldn’t you know it, Shrek 2 also qualifies as an example, a definite improvement over the original.
We pick up soon after the end of the first film; Shrek and Fiona return from their honeymoon only to be summoned to the kingdom of Far, Far Away, ruled by Fiona’s parents, the King and Queen. Apparently word didn’t carry that not only was Fiona not returned to human form, but her new husband is an ogre, news that greatly agitates the King. Shrek is just as bitter, knowing he isn’t wanted and doesn’t belong in the lavish surroundings of the kingdom. The King has bigger problems: he is shaken down by the Fairy Godmother, whom he agreed her daughter’s hand would be given to her son, Prince Charming, who made the treacherous trek to the dragon’s keep only to find it to be for nothing. To straighten things out, the King hires an assassin to take care of Shrek, the feisty, alternatively adorable Puss in Boots, whom the ogre quickly subdues. Seeking to mollify the whole situation, Shrek makes his way to Fairy Godmother’s factory and makes off with a ‘Happily Ever After’ potion, one that turns he and Fiona back into humans (and Donkey into a gorgeous stallion). But of course there’s a ticking clock and Shrek must get back to his beloved by midnight, and of course complications get in the way thanks to Godmother and Charming.
So if the first movie was sticking a big middle finger to classic fairy tale conventions, the second is the filmmakers having to come to task for what they’ve done. Shrek and Fiona’s unconventional union sends shock waves throughout the kingdom. We also see that Shrek inadvertedly thwarted the “happily ever after” of the story by rescuing Fiona before Prince Charming did, which ties into what happened in the first film. From him not being accepted and discovering Fiona’s childhood diary and her obsession with Charming, Shrek begins to doubt whether he really belongs with her. The Fairy Godmother becomes the demon on his shoulder, convincing her that this marriage just ain’t right, it’s against everything written in every fairy tale ever. But what if Shrek could change who he was? The magic potion turns them human, a sacrifice he’s willing to make for the love of his life, but once evil is vanquished, Fiona assures him that she was happy just the way things were. It’s not exactly the deepest of messages, but it’s told very effectively, and as a response and follow-up to the first film, it really works.
The film definitely expands the universe in making Shrek a fish out of water in Far, Far Away, but it really shines in the new additions to the cast. Julie Andrews plays the Queen as you’d expect, but John Cleese really stands out as the King, who acts as a fervent detractor to Shrek, and is also great when reduced to a nervous stammer in the presence of Fairy Godmother. He eventually grows a backbone, and the reveal with him at the end serves as a great wrap-up to the story and his character. Jennifer Saunders chews the scenery as the wicked Fairy Godmother, and Rupert Everett is wonderfully pompous as Charming, but the true stand-out, of course, is Antonio Bandaras as Puss, a cat driven by a code of honor, who puts himself into servitude toward Shrek for besting him. He’s a truly welcome member to the team, and of course, who can deny the cute cat face. CUTE CAT FACE! The humor is a bit scatter shot; the film still leans on a lot of risque humor like the first film, as well as adult content, which at times gets really bizarre like when they show Pinocchio wearing a thong. But there’s great stuff throughout with the interplay of some of the characters, and also the runner of Donkey feeling jealous of Puss potentially ousting him as Shrek’s new best friend.
This movie is also on pop culture reference overload, another DreamWorks staple. In the opening romantic montage alone, we get scenes aping on Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and every kid’s favorite, From Here to Eternity. Some of the bits work, like Puss ripping through Shrek’s shirt like an Alien chest burster, but a lot of them are kind of lame, like the tired Cops parody and patrons running screaming out of a “Farbucks” into one just across the street. I didn’t find myself laughing all that much, but I still was entertained through the whole film by the characters’ dilemmas and interactions alone, and that’s generally a good sign.
Oddly enough, this is my favorite one so far, even after I was largely unimpressed by the first one. Putting its few problems aside (culture and bathroom humor as mentioned, as well as an abundance of pop songs), the core story here is solid, and it’s interesting to see how our lead characters have to explain and justify their actions in the first film here in the second. They disrupted the natural order of things, and have to fight tooth and nail to keep it from falling apart under scrutiny. It’s not exactly a drama, but I didn’t expect a Shrek movie to have a degree of tenseness and seriousness to it, but here we are. Too bad the third one is such a flaming turd. But more on that later.