"Shrek 2" is "Meet the Parents" for computer-animated ogres, and once again the cat gets the biggest laughs. The frisky feline of the moment is a swashbuckling Puss in Boots, voiced by Antonio Banderas in a sendup of his Zorro character.
Puss' swordsmanship isn't what's funny as much as his basic kitty-ness, used to maximum effect when he melts his potential foes' hearts by opening those big, liquid saucer eyes. Movies almost never do right by cat characters -- the feline-bashing "Cats and Dogs" being the most egregious example -- so give the "Shrek" team a big bowl of vittles for coming up with Puss.
Plus, there's a good hairball gag (so to speak).
Otherwise, "Shrek 2" is back to its old fairy tale-deconstructing tricks, though this time contemporary pop culture is a more prominent reference point than those "Once upon a time" days. Having been married at the end of the immensely popular "Shrek" (2001), Shrek and his similarly green and ungainly bride, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), know the honeymoon is over when they're invited back to the Kingdom of Far Far Away to meet her folks, the King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews).
The problem is that the royal parents assume that the preening Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) -- whose blond locks wave in slow motion -- is the one who broke the curse on their tower-confined daughter, so they're expecting to greet Fiona in her Barbie-thin mode alongside her new hunk `o man, not a pair of lime-colored ogres. The meeting doesn't go well.
Adding a further rotten apple to the barrel is the fact that the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders, putting her icy "Absolutely Fabulous" delivery to good use) is Prince Charming's mom, and she's vexed and ready to hex. Soon she's pressuring the nattering King to help get Shrek out of the way (hence the call on Puss).
All in all, it's a solid if not groundbreaking yarn, though a post-matrimonial story may have less innate kid appeal than the original princess-rescuing tale. This "Shrek" is less discordant than the first one but also less surprising.
I was put off by the first movie's mean streak and what I felt was an underlying cynicism. Irreverent or not, you can't make a fairy tale that goes to town with short jokes about the chief villain and then moralizes about accepting everyone's appearance. In "Shrek 2," the desires to amuse kids and adults don't seem so much at odds. The filmmaking team succeeds in maintaining a more consistent tone of cheeky tweaking, even as they feel the need to throw in the occasional gas-passing to stay au courant.
But, inevitably, the repurposing of fairy-tale characters doesn't feel as fresh the second time around, and the filmmakers, having dipped deep into the classic well in "Shrek," here nod more in the direction of movies, TV and celebrity culture. References range from "Hawaii 5-0" and "Rawhide" to "Mission: Impossible," "Cops" and, with a wink to Diaz's real-life boyfriend, a Sir Justin poster on Fiona's wall. (If you don't get it, you don't read People enough. Congratulations.)
Then again, if you're going to have jokes that go over kids' heads, let them all be as rib-tickling as the Donkey's request that Puss be given "the Bob Barker treatment."
Alas, the filmmakers also choose to depict the Kingdom of Far Far Away as a mock fairyland version of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, making "Shrek 2" the latest of a seemingly endless string of movies in which screenwriters show their self-absorption and lack of imagination by twitting the culture that signs their checks. Also, the generous display of brand names makes you suspect DreamWorks figured out a way to get product-placement dollars out of an animated movie.
Still, the tight-skinned, buxom Fairy Godmother, with her endless supply of beauty spells, is an entertaining villain, and the Hollywood lampooning does serve the larger purpose of revisiting the internal/external beauty themes of the first movie. Shrek is something of a poignant hero here and not terribly ogre-like; Myers obviously wasn't being paid per giggle generated. Diaz's Fiona feels increasingly fleshed out, while the "annoying talking animals" provide most of the laughs.
"Shrek 2" is brighter and better looking than its predecessor, though the DreamWorks team still isn't at the level of rival Pixar in terms of computer animation artistry. As is true in almost every film in this medium, the animals and beasts are more expressive than the humans.
That's partly why the ogre versions are more appealing than the ostensibly more attractive forms they take when under certain spells. They seem more human when they're not. The honeymoon's over, but these two, in all of their homeliness, are wearing well.
Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon; written by Adamson, Joe Stillman, J. David Stem, David N. Weiss; based on the book by William Steig; edited by Michael Andrews, Sim Evan-Jones; production designed by Guillaume Aretos; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; produced by Aron Warner, David Lipman, John H. Williams. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Wednesday, May 19. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some crude humor, a brief substance reference, some suggestive content).
Shrek - Mike Myers
Donkey - Eddie Murphy
Princess Fiona - Cameron Diaz
Queen - Julie Andrews
Puss in Boots - Antonio Banderas
King - John Cleese
Prince Charming - Rupert Everett
Fairy Godmother - Jennifer Saunders
Cameos from Larry King as the Ugly Stepsister and Joan Rivers as herself.