As maybe the only person on the planet indifferent to Shrek (2001), I felt like a fat green ogre in a sea of frolicking pixies; and rather than write about how puke-ugly I thought the movie looked and how bored I was with the smirky in-jokes and the fast-talking black-guy sidekick disguised as a donkey, I folded up my word processor and slunk into my cave. Shrek had its felicities—none more prophetic than the mendacious Lord Farquaad's exhortation to his troops, "Some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make." I wasn't prepared, though, for the slap-happy brilliance of Shrek 2 (DreamWorks), which should ideally be seen twice—once with kids, once savored at something like a midnight show.
The improvements in Shrek 2—directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon—begin with the plot, which isn't another cookie-cutter odyssey but a plunge into the happily-ever-after-land of the ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and his bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz). As often happens on honeymoons, the lovebirds revel in their shared freakiness, unmoved by the pitchfork-wielding mob that flatulent ogres having noisy (PG) sex in their fields tend to attract.
Problems arrive with an invitation from Fiona's mom and dad, the king (John Cleese) and queen (Julie Andrews), who don't realize that their beauteous daughter has not only married a mammoth, trumpet-eared slab of green beef but has gaily become one herself. Understandably put out is a certain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) with his heart (or, rather, ego) set on the princess; and even more incensed is his mom (Jennifer Saunders), a professional fairy godmother who, behind her twinkly façade, hatches a plan to turn Fiona back into a willowy redhead and pair her up with her preening boy. The question in Shrek 2 is not just how one rescues a princess, but how one makes that relationship work within a family—and a society—that has major race/species issues.
You could say the film boils down to a laudably progressive plea on behalf of so-called misfits to let them stay true to their essential misfit selves. Fortunately, there's no need to boil it down—just wallow in the wave upon wave of parodies, songs, and stupendous visual and vocal characterizations. I should add that I still don't love the 3-D look, which at times is startlingly lifelike—a small step removed from virtual reality. My taste runs to cartoons that are thoroughly cartoonlike, madly improvising with the laws of time and space in the manner of last year's surreal, synapse-tickling The Triplets of Belleville.
More annoying are the fast-food tie-ins, with chain outlets cleverly transformed into medieval equivalents: It's all just parodic enough to make you forget that there's nothing cute about telling kids, even for yuks, that Burger King, Starbuck's, and other mega-corporations have always been part of the landscape. It would be nice if the Shrek 2 had more original songs: I enjoyed Pete Yorn's new cover of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love With Someone," but my heart sank when Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) launched into a rollicking duet that turned out to be … "Livin' la Vida Loca."
After a measured first hour, the final third gives way to a dizzying procession of take-offs, one more ingenious than the next: I only hope the person who came up with the Pinocchio meets Mission: Impossible gag got one-tenth as much pleasure out of it as I did. (The writers are J. David Stem, Joe Stillman, and David N. Weiss.) It would be tasteless to give away any jokes—well, I'll give away one, when Donkey warns Puss, "The position of annoying talking animal has already been taken." That suggests a healthy attitude toward Murphy's braying ass, who actually does manage to make room for Banderas' joyously subtle feline—a show-stopping reworking of his Zorro with an even more disarming weapon: a pair of impossibly adorable schlock-kitty-painting saucer eyes.
It's possible that the Fairy Godmother (created by Saunders, from Absolutely Fabulous, and the animators) is an even more remarkable creation, like the sugary/steely face of the modern Disney. That's the true target of Shrek 2: the entertainment conglomerate with its rigid enforcement of happily-ever-afterdom. Generously bankrolled by a big Hollywood studio, which stands to make billions from box-office and merchandising and product tie-ins, Shrek 2 nevertheless suggests how to keep your head when those around you are surgically altering theirs.