But is "Shrek the Third" actually any good? DreamWorks Animation execs obviously want to know. Which is why they held a test screening of this still-in-production picture this past weekend.
Lucky for us, loyal JHM reader Buddy Glass actually managed to attend this screening. And what follows is his highly detailed look at this very early version of "Shrek the Third." WARNING! Spoilers abound in this particular article. So if you want to avoid learning too much about this animated feature a full eight months before it hits theaters, you probably want to bail out of this story now.
Still with us? Okay. Buddy Glass' story starts with he & his family picking up tickets for a test screening ...
.... thinking we were going to see a slightly early preview of “Flushed Away” and were absolutely stunned to get into the theater and be told we were going to be the first audience ‘ever’ to see “Shrek The Third”. The kids and adults in the audience went wild but we were told the movie was only about 40% done and some would feature animation without lighting and a fair amount would be just storyboards (in some cases, extremely rough storyboards). They had metal detectors and were very firm on security (couldn't bring in cell phones with cameras or recorders - understandable).
My impression is that they have a lot of work to do – especially making this movie a lot funnier. My kids agreed and thought it was just okay, definitely worse than the first two. The story is actually fine, although it drags seriously in the middle, and the ending is kind of ho-hum. They seriously need to hire some folks to bring in more gags – especially for the adults. As it is now, they have a film with a decidedly different tone than the others, with flashes of good material in amongst a more adventure-oriented script interested in hitting a fair number of plot points more than giving the audience some chuckles. I think it is definitely salvageable but they need good joke writers – there are so many lines where I was just trying to write their jokes in for them because they hadn’t bothered to include one!
The film’s opening introduces a subplot that sounds funnier on paper than in action. Prince Charming is shown riding through the forest, proclaiming the wondrous actions he’s going to do (sounds like saving Fiona) and we pull back to find out he’s actually on stage, performing a skit at a pub. After a moment, another actor in a rough but obvious Shrek costume wanders onto stage and, to Charming’s dismay, the crowd cheers. The whole thing stage apart after that and every starts to laugh as he rushes off stage and into his dressing room (which is actually an alley door and his setup is out there – cute joke). He vows to claim the throne of Far Far Away.
Soon, we’re up in the castle and find out that Shrek and Fiona are filling in for the king, who is sick. So, they are showing up to events, knighting people (Shrek accidentally stabs a guy he then dubs “Sir Bleed-a-lot”), and it all culminates in them being dolled up with Elizabethan-looking costumes (complete with face-makeup) and they cannot move their arms. Shrek and Fiona are waiting on stage and he gets a page to take a stick and scratch his rear (since he can’t reach it), which, of course, leads to someone opening the curtain and revealing them as this page is poking at Shrek’s posterior. The whole place goes slapstick and it is pretty funny. In fact, this whole “Shrek covers for the King” sequence is good, although, like the rest of the movie, it needs those wall-to-wall gags like in Shrek 2 (which, for my money, was a hilarious film that was much funnier and much more clever film than the first). Donkey and Puss run around but with very little to do and not much that is funny (a couple of good jokes but these are great characters and they aren’t used very well here).
But, then they find out that the king is dying. There is a funny (although, again, could be funnier) sequence where the frog king (still done nicely by Cleese) keeps almost dying. Before he finally croaks (and they don’t use anywhere near the frog puns they could), he tells them that Shrek should be king but if he really doesn’t want to do so, then there is a cousin, Arthur, who is the next in line.
Leaving Fiona & the Queen back at the castle, Shrek, Donkey & Puss in boats sail off to a place called Worstershire – a joke they belabor (in Shrek 2, that would have been a throwaway line but the jokes are in short supply so they need to put up signs). It turns out, this is a high school, which gives then a chance to make a lot of jokes about a medieval-fantasy high school, some funny (D&D geeks, stoners falling out of a van with ‘frankincense and myrrh’, some Valley Maiden-talk) and some bits that are boring (everything else).
They eventually find Arthur (“Artie”) in the exact circumstance out of Screenplay 101 – they find a tough knight on the high school jousting a small guy who falls over and they assume the rough-and-tumble guy is Arthur (turns out, he’s Lancelot but they miss the chances for jokes here). The sad-sack little guy is Artie and he slinks away, people call him names as Shrek and Donkey/Puss pursue, and when Shrek says he is the new king (and someone says he should only be the king of losers or something – need good joke, please!) eventually it is decided he should run over to try and take out the Sword In The Stone (which is, conveniently, on school grounds and just outside the room they are in – why isn’t there a joke here!?!? They just rush past it).
So they get out by the Sword and just as Artie is about to try and give it go, Shrek says he needs ‘inspiration’ and Puss suddenly conducts the school band to distract them while Shrek tries to loosen it up for him. The loosening idea is terrific, but ‘striking up the band’ and all is really boring, not funny and is a stretch to make any sense at all. My eight year old actually leaned over and said, “why would the band start playing?” I didn’t say it but I thought, “Um, lazy screenwriters?” So he pulls the sword out, Shrek grabs him and they are off.
On the trip back, Artie and Shrek fight a bit and eventually end up crashing the boat (at some point, their Viking-for-no-reason captain just disappears but whatever) on an island. They eventually find their way to a door (by now, Artie is furious and doesn’t want to go back to be king) which Artie bangs on and proclaims that he is being kidnapped. This part was storyboarded so I can’t tell you how it will look but some big apparition comes out and a loud voice says something about fearing whoever-something. Then, it short-circuits a bit and the real guy comes out. Ho-hum. I’ve seen the Wizard of Oz.
We find out that this old guy is Merlin (Artie says he used to be a teacher at the school but had a nervous breakdown – not funny at all! Can’t they come up with something better and a term that means something to eight year olds?) He is voiced by the great Eric Idle (although some of the work was in progress). This character, second only to Artie, is so underdeveloped that this whole sequence, despite one funny joke about underwear stew, just drags and drags. Typical second act problems but since they focus on Artie and Merlin, two uninteresting and underdeveloped characters, you are practically begging for Donkey and Puss to cut up or Shrek to be his usual grumpy self (this is in short supply throughout the movie, but it is funny when he does act like himself – like Donkey telling him to change his tactic of yelling at Artie to get him to be king and Shrek picking up a big log to beat him with). Shrek bonds with Artie when it is revealed that he was abandoned by his parents. Shrek eventually says that what people think of you is not the same as what you are (oh, they say it in a nicer way, but you get it) and Artie finally thinks maybe he could be king.
So, after wasting some time on the island there, they suddenly decide to head back and have Merlin teleport them back to Far Far Away and it works.
But while all of this is happening, Charming has gone back to the nasty pub in the second movie and rouses all the villains there to join him in taking over Far Far Away. He appeals to them by saying a version of the same homily Shrek convinced Artie with – “Why should we be denied our Happily Ever After because some else says so!?!” The idea here, again, is great and some of the lines he uses to convince them (the evil queen is there, Captain Hook) but so much more could be done! And, yes, Regis is here as the Uglier Stepsister. That works okay but it is hardly a revelation. They agree to join in storming the castle. Yay, we have our villains. Nowhere near as interesting as the way things work out in Shrek 2 but oh well.
Meanwhile, Fiona meets with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and the Ugly Stepsister (now reformed) there. This scene is some fun, although there are frequently chances for funny jokes that are just lost. Almost everything out of a character’s mouth in Shrek 2 was funny. If only that were the case here…still, there are some good bits.
As the villains descend on the castle, the princesses go off to hide in the bowels of the castle (and there is an inspired joke here in the moving wall and statuary they are hiding behind where they come together and make the Frog King kiss a Horses rear – why aren’t there more wonderful throwaway jokes like this!) There is one funny scene where they confront the highly-underused minor characters (Gingerbread Man, Wolf, Three Little Pigs, and Pinochio) and, in the funniest bit in the film, Charming tries to get Pinochio to tell them where Shrek is by saying he can’t possibly lie but Pinochio combats this with a bunch of confusing double-triple-and-quadruple negatives. This is wonderfully done and a window into the level of often sophisticated humor in Shrek 2. But it is short-lived.
The Princesses, Queen and Fiona wander around (for too long) but eventually come out and Rapunzel betrays them to Charming so she can be queen. What a missed opportunity to say that she was made she didn’t get her own movie! (Rapunzel Unbraided notwithstanding – what a lovely in-joke) The princesses are all captured and put into a cell.
Shrek and gang return but as they confront Charming, Artie runs off when Charming reveals that Shrek is supposed to be king but wanted to ‘pawn it off’ on Artie – and that he loosened the sword for him back at school. The kid takes off and Shrek is captured by the villains. The most striking thing here is that Shrek seems so weak! In the past, he always kicks butt but he’s strangely subdued in this one. It doesn’t work to well, especially when you think he should be winning these fights.
The princesses and Fiona whine a bit before the Queen inexplicably breaks down the wall with a shrug (“Didn’t think you got your fighting skills from your father, did you?” Whatever) and they get out. Suddenly, they start kicking butt and it is fun with Snow White sending the birds that come when she sings to attack an evil tree, Cinderella using her glass slippers as boomerangs, and Sleeping Beauty tripping people by falling asleep in front of them while they run up to her. Some good bits here (with a sort of reference to the new Charlie’s Angels in the actions and the Kill Bill ladies in the music).
In the midst of all this, Artie wanders off and finds Merlin again in the forest. Suddenly, he’s told the real Sword in the Stone is nearby and he pulls it up and realizes he IS supposed to be king. Boring, slow scene! Not funny at all. All of this was storyboarded so hopefully they will come up with some better writing here.
They end up breaking up a reenactment of the show at the beginning of the movie, with Charming now using the real Shrek all tied up. This sequence was all in storyboard so it was hard to tell what was going on but, essentially, they all fight a bit until Artie comes in and tells Charming that everything is fine because you don’t need to be what other people say you are (the lesson Shrek taught him). Merlin pops in, everything works out and Artie becomes king.
So, there you go – an idea of where they are with Shrek The Third. My impressions:
- Mike Myers is so subdued here that he almost disappears from the movie for long stretches - but it’s not his fault. Few lines give him much to do.
- Cameron Diaz does well with what she has. No problem there
- Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas are in the same boat –talented voice actors wishing they had more and better lines. Why don’t they use the comic duo and have a lot of fun with them? Too much exposition for the gags.
- Justin Timberlake barely registers. It is not a horrible misfire but also nothing special at all. Again, the script doesn’t develop Artie at all. Why make him a sort-of wimp but not really very interesting. He's just a dull character. Why not an ADD fratboy or something more inclined to give us laughs? Some kind of traits that would make him funnier would be nice. As it is, Artie gets plenty of screen time but not much development. Their take on characters like Fairy Godmother and so many others have been so inventive. Why is Artie such a bore with nothing to do?
- Eric Idle – What a waste that they don’t give Merlin more. They could have some fun with it but they miss the chance. Eric Idle is one funny guy but they don’t give him anything to do (seems like a lot of his lines are not in there yet anyway, so maybe he’ll help them out with some adlibs). This character needs to be seriously redeveloped – just a crotchety old guy who lost some of his abilities. What a bore! They need to find a way to reimagine Merlin in an interesting way – not just toss him in there with no development. Artie and Merlin are so carelessly and humorlessly shoehorned into this movie, they hardly seem to be from the Shrek universe.
- Charming – Rupert Everett gives it a good try but the character that was so witty in Shrek 2 is reduced to little more than a revenge-minded buffoon. I wish they’d let him be a little more inspired like he is when recruiting the others. I wish his plan would be more interesting than running in there and taking everything over. He ends with a whimper, too. Ho-hum again.
- Saturday Night Live Princesses – A funny idea and, in action, it works okay. These are hysterical ladies and they could do a lot more if given better material. As it is, they make do with occasionally witty lines that mostly lack bite. Maya Rudolph (Rapunzel) is the only one that seems a little out of it. Tiny Fey might have been better.
That’s a lot, I know. But the biggest problem with the movie is that it lacks the fast and furious humor of the others (especially Shrek 2), the witty songs (like the Be Our Guest parody), and the endless throwaway gags that made people NEED to see Shrek 2 over and over again. This is their main problem and they need to hire some funny script doctors that can bring in a lot more gags-per-minute than they have now. My kids were really fidgety during a lot of it and I became bored numerous times, rarely laughing heartily. Asked afterward to name favorite moments and they had a hard time.
- Minor characters – Most of the best humor is from the minor characters and they just don’t get used. The Three Blind Mice are barely in one scene. The rest of the other characters are so rarely show it is just a shame (making way for the one-joke princesses (although it is a good joke) and the underdeveloped Merlin and Artie. The Gingerbread Man is hysterical but other than one brilliant moment of his life flashing before his eyes (another absolute high point and one of the few times I laughed out loud), he’s not given much to do.
As it is, they have a long work-in-progress that they need to tighten, strengthen in the middle and make a lot funnier. If Artie and Merlin are going to take up so much space, they will need to be more compelling if they plan to obscure so deeply the guy who the movie is named after – Shrek, who really is submerged in the second and third acts. I’m stunned Mike Myers didn’t give them more good ideas.
But let’s not be too harsh! They still have months and months to work on it. They have the parts, they just need writing help to work those characters out and inject some humor. Then, they will have another blockbuster on their hands.