Shrek 2 (review)

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Easy Being Green

Ah, the sequel. Sequels are like the tail end of senior year in high school, when your SATs are in and your class ranking is secured and you’re just coasting and what’re they gonna do if you don’t show up for English Lit, make Harvard take back that acceptance letter? A sequel — especially to an enormously popular film like Shrek — has a built-in audience and is guaranteed to make a bazillion dollars worldwide and have 100,000 pirated copies get snapped up in Chinatown even before the word gets out that it’s awful, so why should anyone even bother to show up for it? Where’s the percentage in creativity in a case like this? If this isn’t an instance where cutting class and heading for the beach is called for, what, pray tell, is?
But the team behind Shrek 2 are clearly a bunch of nerds who actually studied for senior finals and took pride in acing them even if everyone said they didn’t really matter and knew that that permanent record all the grownups were going on about all through school is something you carry around inside you — something to do with personal integrity. How else to explain that this crew — Andrew Adamson wrote 2 with Joe Stillman, J. David Stem, and David N. Weiss, and directed it with Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, and here’s a rare instance of lots of cooks not spoiling the stew, and now I’m mixing metaphors and despite appearances I swear I was one of those nerds who did not skip English Lit on a beautiful June afternoon lo these many years ago — actually produced a film that’s this delightful and smart and clever and playful when they didn’t have to, when they could have gotten away with so much less?

I mean to say: Shrek, which won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film a coupla years back, and I’m tempted to think the category was invented just so that film could win it, was pretty damn brilliant, and Shrek 2 is even better. Who does this in Hollywood? It’s enough to kindle a tiny spark of hope in me that there’s a handful of people with some heart and soul in that town, the evidence of the likes of Van Helsing and Ella Enchanted aside.

Could be I’m blowing this whole thing out of proportion simply because 2 made me laugh longer and harder than anything else in ages, and I love it out of all reason for that alone. I’m not a laugh-out-loud kind of person — I’m more an ironic-snorting, sarcastic-chuckling kind of person. I’m just not that surprised by, you know, stuff, and I get more jaded by the minute. But there I was, clutching my stomach in pain, screaming — screaming — with laughter, in tears. The sheer sensuous delight of laughing like that is plenty to endear 2 to me.

But no: there’s plenty to snort ironically at, too, in Shrek 2. Like tons of much more overt slapping-in-the-face of all that Evil Hollywood stands for besides a nerdly devotion to quality over simple cashing in. Picking up where the first film left off, the not-so-loveable ogre Shrek (Mike Myers: The Cat in the Hat, View from the Top) journeys to the kingdom of Far Far Away to meet the royal parents of his bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Gangs of New York). The kicker is dual: not only is this big green lumpy guy not the groom her parents had in mind for their darling daughter, but Far Far Away is a snickering sendup of Hollywood, the locale, as well as Hollywood, the culture, where appearance is everything. Where one enters the town through a replica of the Paramount Studios gate and across the street from a Farbucks coffee shop is another Farbucks, where handsome Prince Charming (Rupert Everett: The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband) is a shallow twit and his mother, Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), is a power-and-fame-crazed schemer. Beauty, in this take-that smackdown of vapid E!-fueled pop culture, is not a matter of the eye of the beholder but the heart and soul of the individual. And sacrifice for those we love, in this fantasy-happy dismissal of fairy tales, is far far preferable to making gimme wishes for ourselves.

Among the boisterous skewering of the outlandish tropes of fairy tales, the castles and scary woods and magical creatures, there’s a gentle puncturing of self-serving fantasy here, one that acknowledges the irresistible indulgence in it while rejecting it as pleasant delusion: Donkey (Eddie Murphy: The Haunted Mansion, Daddy Day Care) gazing in rapt awe at the tall, swaying palm trees of that fairy-tale land of Beverly Hills is as much as sendup of the drive-into-Hollywood movie cliché as it is a recognition that everyone does that the first time they visit Los Angeles no matter how cognizant they are of the mirage of it. Even the voice performances contribute: I thought Eddie Murphy was stealing the movie as the huggably donkeyish Donkey until Antonio Banderas (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over) entered as hired assassin Puss in Boots and proceeded to subvert the fantasy of his own dashing image with wanton glee. So much of the sarcastic chuckling here comes as a result of realizing that you never knew it could be so much fun to have a movie work so hard and so successfully to tell you that fairy tales are bunk.

The insanely, transportingly funny stuff comes after, in the second half of the film, which builds to a genuinely suspenseful finale — will Shrek be able to win Fiona again, this time over the machinations of Charming and his mother? And a simple rundown of the funny bits can’t convey why it’s funny. True, the pop-culture and movie in-jokes are more manic and come faster than in Shrek; and while the references to things like The Lord of the Rings and Ghostbusters aren’t entirely unexpected, who’d have imagined nods to From Here to Eternity or The Fabulous Baker Boys? But it’s in the confidence with which they’re deployed — a trust that the audience will get things without having to have them spelled out or lingered over. You’ve barely caught your breath laughing at one joke before the next one is gone, and the luminous animation is so warm and touchable that all the little visual throwaway gags in the background double the humor, if only you can decide where on the screen to focus your attention.

Which only means you’ll have to see it more than once to milk all the laughter out of it that’s there to be had. Maybe that’s where the percentage in creativity comes in after all.

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