Since the entire Shrek franchise is based on make-believe, we can just pretend Shrek the Third never happened. After two expertly fractured fairy tales, Part 3 was just a mild sprain, trotting out the jolly green ogre and his pals for a fast payday. • Everyone involved with Shrek Forever After seems to realize they have some making up to do. The jokes are sharper, delivered by actors who aren't merely reciting lines this time, including the funniest threat to the Far Far Away kingdom since Lord Farquaad in the first film. This movie is a last chance to save the series, which it does.
Maybe that's because Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) has more to handle this time than baby ogre poop, although ca-ca jokes still abound. In a niftily edited early sequence, we grasp the irritating sameness of his domestic routine and dealings with Donkey (Eddie Murphy, back on his braying game). He doesn't have time to enjoy a mud bath, and the roar that used to scare villagers is a birthday party trick now.
Shrek's midlife crisis gets more Grimm when sneaky Rumpel- stiltskin (Walt Dohrn) offers one of his famously crooked deals. He'll cast a spell giving Shrek one day as his former self, before Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and the kids, when he could pillage and plunder for fun. Of course, Rumpelstiltskin wants something in return, part of his scheme to gain control of the kingdom.
The results are a cockeyed riff on It's a Wonderful Life, with Shrek entering a parallel Far Far Away where not even Donkey knows him. Fiona is a warrior princess leading rebels against Rumpelstiltskin's regime, and thoroughly uninterested in giving Shrek the true love's kiss that could break the spell.
Previously dashing Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) looks more like Garfield here. You'll love the Gingerbread Man's parallel personality; animal crackers never had it so bad.
Screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke strike a nice balance between Shrek's meta-crises and the franchise's signature Mother Goose goofiness. Perched in the middle is Rumpelstiltskin, a hyperactive Gollum of sorts stealing each scene he's in, thanks to Dohrn's frantically seething line readings.
Since Shrek Forever After is available in 3-D, director Mike Mitchell leans a bit heavily on the flying stuff, on dragons' backs, witches' brooms and anything else that can soar and dip. Only five months past Avatar, 3-D wizards are already overdue for another kind of optical thrill. Aside from those sequences, there's little here worth spending extra for a ticket.
But Shrek Forever After is a sturdy bridge between the splendid How to Train Your Dragon and the expected brilliance of Toy Story 3. That's a surprising revival after Shrek the Third was so lifeless. This is billed as the final chapter in the big guy's saga and, unexpectedly, I'm now sorry to see him go.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.