In 2001, I scolded the original Shrek (which did quite well despite my qualms) for devoting itself more to lampooning fairy tales than to being its own tale. Mighty must be the power I wield over the DreamWorks creative team, because the sequel pretty much leaves fairy tales off its radar. Shrek 2, which I found immeasurably more entertaining than its parent, gets its laughs from character comedy and reserves its few insider digs for Hollywood’s glitz culture. This one isn’t a not-so-covert Jeffrey Katzenberg broadside at Disney — it comes from a purer place, which I can’t believe I’m saying about a megabucks summer sequel.
Here, Shrek (Mike Myers, once again getting his Scot on) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) live happily ever after in the swamp, in blissful muddy squalor, until Fiona’s royal parents (Julie Andrews and John Cleese) beckon her to the kingdom of Far Far Away under the pretense of meeting her betrothed. Actually, they’d like her to get with Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), an oafish, self-smitten “hunk” whose kiss has the power to convert her from ogre to human. With the help of his mother the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders, in the movie’s most pitch-perfect casting), Prince Charming schemes to win Fiona’s hand by any means necessary.
Shrek 2 touches on some real stuff: Shrek is content to be his ogre-ish self with Fiona until her parents’ disapproval enters the picture; she wants him to make an effort to join her family. Who hasn’t had that discussion, green horns or no green horns? The King, voiced by Cleese with an effortless mixture of comic disdain and royal ineptitude, is actually divided in his feelings about Shrek, for reasons we eventually learn, and the Queen receives the subtlest character animation, her features showing delicate flickers of exasperation or compassion (her expression when she first meets Shrek is superb, right up there with Anne Bancroft’s small facial gymnastics in The Elephant Man upon encountering John Merrick).
Eddie Murphy returns as the comically irritating Donkey, and one’s misgivings about a black actor “playing” a dimwitted loudmouth sidekick are quickly overruled by the obvious relish Murphy takes in the role. Donkey, too, acquires shadings of jealousy when Shrek gets a new sidekick — Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas delivering a timely reminder that he can be funny as hell), a feared cat assassin originally hired to do away with Shrek. Puss is deadly with a sword, even more so with the Margaret Keane eyes he deploys on special occasions. He’s the movie’s secret weapon, scoring every time. The team of three writers and three directors have a lighter touch with parody this time out, managing to twit The Lord of the Rings, From Here to Eternity, Frankenstein, Peter Pan, and Spider-Man practically before we’ve even sat down.
Shrek 2 is, dare I say, more hip than the original without particularly trying to be, which I felt was the first movie’s problem: Either you are or you aren’t. That movie had John Lithgow in fine hammy fettle, but this one has songs by Nick Cave and Tom Waits, and unites Brit-humor behemoths Cleese and Saunders for what I believe is the first time. I can forgive the Joan Rivers cameo, and the overbearing cheesiness of the “Livin’ la Vida Loca” finale (so five years ago), and the ubiquity of Shrek’s grinning mug on every food product I’ve seen in the supermarket for the past month. The first Shrek didn’t do proper justice to William Steig’s idiosyncratic book, but this loose-limbed and slyly funny sequel, which has as little to do with Steig as its predecessor did, might have pleased him.