Movie sequels have it tough. They only exist because the public's love for the original film was so great that they want more of the same, yet at the same time, a sequel must also deliver at least something a little bit different or risk boring its audience to death with repetition. 'Shrek the Third' is a classic example of a movie that never quite successfully solves this dilemma, offering up too much of what we've seen before and too little of what we haven't.
Of course, the original 'Shrek' wasn't all that blazingly original to begin with, with a story that borrowed liberally from classic fairy tales, and mixed it up with hip humor and a seemingly endless supply of pop culture references. 'Shrek 2' continued this approach, so I suppose it's no huge surprise that 'Shrek the Third' again plays it safe, delivering another narrative pastiche of other movies. You might think of this one as the 'Three Ogres and a Baby' meets 'The Lion King' installment in the franchise, where Shrek learns he's gonna be a papa, while at the same time struggles with the responsibility of being ruler of his kingdom. Unfortunately, the film adds little else of substance to this familiar thematic equation, and has so many returning characters and loose ends to tie up from the earlier movies that the story never gets much of a chance to live and breathe on its own. There is a curious sense of obligation to the whole affair.
The basics of the plot are amusing enough. When his frog-in-law suddenly croaks (har har, get it?), Shrek (Mike Myers) discovers he's the next in line to assume the throne. This doesn't go down so well with the big ogre, however, who just wants to hang around the swamp with his faithful sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss 'n' Boots (Antonio Banderas). Complicating matters is the news from Fiona (Cameron Diaz) that she's pregnant, which throws Shrek into a major daddy-to-be panic -- especially when the size of her bulging belly would seem to suggest that more than one little bundle of joy is on the way.
Then, suddenly, Shrek gets a break when he learns that there is actually another potential heir to the throne, a supposedly noble knight named Arthur (who actually turns out to be a gangly teen named Artie, voiced by Justin Timberlake). So Shrek sets off with Donkey and Boots to entice Artie to take the job, which leads to another whirlwind adventure and run-ins with various colorful fairytale characters. But there's danger, too, when the evil Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) learns of Shrek's quest, and pledges to stop at nothing in order to snag the crown for himself -- even if it means offing Artie, Fiona and anyone else who gets in his path.
Ultimately 'Shrek the Third' feels more like a sketch show than a story. The burden of delivering a relentless parade of ironic zingers and satiric homages is crushing, and the narrative of the movie seems to be in constant danger of collapsing like a post-modern house of cards. The sheer desperation of the film's need to please overwhelms all, and any grown-up themes it attempts to explore are squashed by all the cynical cleverness. Although I have to admit a begrudging admiration for any movie that can somehow find a way to use the James Bond tune "Live and Let Die" as an appropriate funeral song for a dying frog, then only minutes later quote the ultimate '70s pity-party power ballad "I've Never Been to Me" as the theme for its villain, even with a slim runtime of barely 87 minutes, in the end I left the film more exhausted than I was exhilarated.
The word "magic" is thrown around a lot when it comes to movies in this genre, but it's true -- the best animated family movies are able to appeal to all age groups, marrying universal stories with great visuals and truly inspired humor. Unfortunately there's nothing magical about 'Shrek the Third' -- instead, it simply distracts with soulless pastiche, eventually leaving us with only the illusion of having been entertained. Still, judging by the flick's healthy box office returns, it seems that the joyous residue left by the original film is enough to carry yet another installment. As such, I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend this HD DVD for fans of the franchise, even if only for a rental. 'Shrek the Third' may have all the resonance of a commercial for the original 'Shrek,' but, for many, it seems that may be enough.
Previously released on HD DVD as a direct digital-to-digital presentation, DreamWorks has gone back to the same well, utilizing the identical master for this Blu-ray. This time, however, we get re-encoded 1080/VC-1 to maximize the BD-50 dual-layer disc. The result offers no quantifiable difference between the previous HD DVD.
Unlike a string of more recent animated films that have attempted to simulate a more "film-like" look (making background elements appear out of focus, adding grain, etc.), DreamWorks goes the opposite route, with everything appearing so incredibly sharp that it's almost creepy. 'Shrek the Third' is incredibly dimensional, and is about as close to 3-D as you're going to get without a pair of red and blue glasses. The level of detail and fine textures can be astounding, and just about any scene in the film is easily demo material.
The rest of the presentation is just as impressive. Colors are bold (particularly the striking icky green of ogre skin, and the fiery purples and oranges of the dragon) but never oversaturated. The image also avoids an over-processed look, with well-modulated contrast across the entire grayscale and deep, rich blacks that are free of heavy crush. I detected no problems with compression or other artifacts, and edge enhancement appears to be completely absent. Even a year after the HD DVD edition, this Blu-ray of 'Shrek the Third' boasts a marvelous transfer that easily holds it own with the best animated presentations I've seen on high-def.
The audio on the 'Shrek the Third' HD DVD was a disappointment, as DreamWorks opted to eschew high-res audio and go for Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (1.5mbps) only. The studio has not made that same mistake twice, and bumps up the Blu-ray to Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). It offers a nice -- if not massive -- upgrade.
The biggest beneficiary of the bump to high-res audio are the surrounds. The 'Shrek' films have always enjoyed wonderfully alive surround mixes, with discrete effects accompanying the zany action on the screen. Activity in the rear channels is near-constant, with noticeably superior heft to dynamic range and improved imaging between channels. Pans and score bleed merge often to create a fairly consistent "wall of sound" out of the rears, and sustained subtle ambiance ain't too shabby either with everything from minute drops of rain to wind in the trees subtle but noticeable in the surrounds.
Like most animated films, 'Shrek the Third' is an entirely studio-constructed soundtrack, so the caliber of the source is always impeccable. The TrueHD mix doesn't sound much more expansive than the Dolby Digital-Plus track, however, with low bass that extends only slightly beyond what came before (the subwoofer was a weak point of the HD DVD as well). The rest of the track sounds clean and refined. Dialogue holds strong, and is nicely balanced in the center channel.
Historically, DreamWorks has done a pretty good job of providing well-balanced supplemental packages for its family titles, recognizing the needs of both kids and adults alike. 'Shrek the Third' mined that approach for the HD DVD, and the studio doesn't waver for the Blu-ray, which ports over all of the same extras. Unfortunately, I wasn't blown away the first time as this is a rather flat set that appears more geared to marketing concerns than delivering truly insightful content. (As with the HD DVD, all video materials are in 1080p/i and either AVC MPEG-4 or MPEG-2.)
Let's start by looking at the more adult-oriented fare, which can all be found under the "Special Features" tab.
Next up are several extras that live outside of the "Special Features" tab, most specifically geared to the tots.
The fairy tale-meets-post-modern formula wears pretty thin with 'Shrek the Third,' but there's still enough here to barely recommend it to fans of the franchise -- if no one else. It's also the kind of film kids will watch over and over again, so parents will certainly get their money's worth. Although I found the seemingly over-stuffed supplemental package on this Blu-ray a bit fluffy, the video and audio are very strong. The latter even gets a bump up to high-res over the previous HD DVD, which only adds to the overall value for your money. The movie ain't great, but this Blu-ray is still worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.