The Shrek films are the most difficult films for me to evaluate. My first screen credit was on Shrek 2 and I had started at DreamWorks Animation at the tail end of Shrek. Many of my friends have worked on these films and, consequently, these movies hold special significance for me. However, with that said, I am also not afraid to call a spade a spade and voice my displeasure regarding the most recent Shrek films. I considered Shrek the Third an almost unwatchable experience that seemed to meander aimlessly looking for a plot. Although Shrek Forever After is not as bad as its third predecessor, it fails to capture the heart and freshness of the first two movies.

The fourth (and supposedly final, but that will depend on its box office) installment is a take on It’s a Wonderful Life. Shrek is living the domesticated life. Wife, kids, birthday parties, diaper changes, etc. He is surrounded by his friends and life seems to be going great for him. However, Shrek finds himself unhappy and unfulfilled. He grows to resent domestic life and reaches a point where he wishes he could be the lonely ogre he once was. Enter Rumpelstiltskin (I’ll call him ‘Rumpel’ for short). Rumpel finds Shrek at his lowest point and offers to grant the ogre what he wishes in return for Rumpel getting to rule Far, Far, Away for 1 day. Shrek agrees and signs a magical contract. Unbeknownst to Shrek, Rumpel tricks Shrek and the ogre finds himself stuck in an alternate reality where he’s a hunted ogre again and Rumpel now rules Far, Far, Away.

One thing that can be said about Shrek Forever After is that it has a pretty cool premise. I’ve always enjoyed It’s a Wonderful Life and its a timeless story that can be told in many variations without getting old. The Shrek universe has by now reached a point where the ogre has attained everything he wants. A logical next step is to take everything away from him and force him to get them back. So the problem isn’t the premise. Its the execution of the story. It begins bad enough with a backstory on Rumpel and a short intro on Shrek and Fiona’s domesticated life. I felt everything was rushing past me at a breakneck pace without allowing me to get reacquainted with the world and Shrek’s situation. Its as if the filmmakers didn’t want to spend too much time in boring old normal reality and instead wanted to get us to where the real action was. Ok, I get that. Children generally have ADD and they are the market DreamWorks is aiming for. The problem is that when Shrek is transported to the alternate reality, we (or at least I) didn’t really give a shit about seeing him try and get back or, more importantly, try and win Fiona’s love again.

What I think made the first Shrek film succeed so well was the tender moments between Shrek and Fiona and the chemistry that the filmmakers took the time to develop. By the time we reach the end of Shrek, we’re rooting for Shrek to win Fiona and, as a result, the ending pays off. Here, you’re thrown from one sequence to another with seemingly new characters in each sequence. Its like Shrek on steroids. Ironically, even with so much action and with a much faster pace, this film felt boring. The filmmakers seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the story and, consequently, you’re left with sensory overload.

Another major difference that I noticed between the first Shrek and this 4th installment is the careful, marketing-driven, safe storytelling this latest film employs. The first film was not afraid to take on fairy tale conventions and treat them with disrespect. Its what gave the first film its freshness and edginess. All of this is gone this time around. The characters themselves have turned into mainstream, mass-market entities that toe the conventional line and play it safe. The maverick attitude and edginess that marked the first film no longer exists.

Unlike Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After has a strong and interesting villain. Much of Shrek I and Shrek II‘s successes depended on the strength of the antagonist, which is something Shrek the Third sorely lacked and which is partly why it was so forgettable. Here, you have Rumpel as the villain and he’s absolutely great. Not only did I dig his bitchy personality, but I really enjoyed his look and facial expressions. Like Lord Farquad and the Fairy Godmother, Rumpel possesses the perfect mix of humor and villainy. He basically stole the show in every scene he was in and found myself wanting to exclusively see him for the rest of the movie. A more minor character that I also enjoyed was the Pied Piper. His use as a bounty hunter, his choice of music, and the reaction of characters when they hear it was imaginatively used.

All the main characters that audiences have grown to love (Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, Puss, Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, the 3 Little Pigs, and Dragon) are present. This time, however, they came off as less interesting, a lot less funny (especially Donkey, who in the past has provided the most comic relief), and overall trite. Every line these characters utter sounds uninspired, which is basically the case for the entire film. I will say that it was nice to for once see a LOT LESS pop cultural references and more focus on story, but if your material is going to end up feeling like a sitcom, then I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re going to focus on telling a story.

Finally, I’m sure many of you will try to see Shrek Forever After in 3D. Don’t bother. Not only does the film look a lot darker, thereby hiding some of the details in the film, it hurt my eyes and gave me a massive headache. More importantly, however, the film barely takes advantage of the 3D. I’m not saying that the movie should have resorted to gimmicky conventions, but I wish it had used the technology a little more effectively (a good example of 3D being used much better was in DreamWorks own How to Train Your Dragon).

Speaking of How to Train Your Dragon, after I had seen and been totally blown away by that film, I was hoping DreamWorks Animation would finally turn a page in its history and actually start focusing on telling good stories. Unfortunately, Shrek Forever After feels like a return to the quality of its earlier films (with the exception of a few films here and there). Despite my displeasure with the movie, I commend all the hard work and dedication the crew put into making this film because I sure as hell know how difficult it is to make these movies. Whether a movie turns out to be good or bad, its still a very difficult process and its extremely rewarding when its finally complete and put out there for the world to see. And for that, I congratulate DreamWorks Animation for putting another film in the can.