I have a love-hate relationship with the Shrek franchise. On the one hand, these movies function quite well as a steady stream of gags, many of them contemporary and often quite adult. On the other hand, everything that succeeds about them revolves around repetition rather than inspiration. DreamWorks has used Shrek as its principle cash cow for several years now, even going so far as turning the guy into a Broadway star, a factor reflected in the sameness permeating each sequel. Nevertheless, the entertainment value of these movies has remained consistently competent, so at least there's that.
Each Shrek movie, including the new fourth entry Shrek Forever After, works overtime as both self-reflexive fairy tale and energetic, fast-paced action spectacle. Forever After, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, might just be the best of the bunch: A breezy sense of fun dominates the story from start to finish, and it never lags. The opening sequence, in which Shrek grows tired of his redundant family life, recalls the speediness of the introductory montage in Pixar's Up. The story, a bite-sized It's a Wonderful Life knock-off that finds Shrek accidentally signing away his life to a scheming Rumpelstiltskin, has a smooth, utterly classical yet mostly uninspired progression. But it works enough on the level of narrative to allow room for the endless stream of gags and rudimentary emotional investment in the protagonist's conundrum, despite the fact that it all seems rather familiar. ("I used to be an ogre," Shrek sighs. "Now I'm just a jolly green joke." Well, yeah. That's always the point.) Forever After may lift its theme of fantasy-set suburban discontent from The Incredibles, but it mainly pilfers from its own background. Fortunately, that background is persistently funny. And now in 3-D!