I wish I could say the third time's a charm, but charm is the one thing that's missing from Shrek the Third, Dreamworks' latest chapter in the storybook life of the world's kindest, gentlest ogre. Shrek the First managed to combine vaudeville and potty humor with a strangely enchanting love story, all while sticking it to the man, the man being Walt Disney, whose animated fairy tales were gleefully deconstructed. Shrek the Second showed some strain, as sequels often do, and Shrek the Third practically has a nervous breakdown, so determined is it to entertain us. What used to seem fresh and new now seems...well, less so. And the writers really need to watch it with those Flintstones-like anachronisms. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden extensions," someone says to the follically gifted fairy-tale character. Ugh.
If Shrek had the big fella falling in love with Fiona and Shrek 2 had him meeting his in-laws, Shrek the Third has him dealing with the possibility of starting a family of his own. And there's an enjoyably surrealistic scene where a small army of Mini-Shreks, like so many merchandising tie-ins, invade his dreams and wreak havoc. But Shrek also has to deal with the possibility of ruling Far Far Away when Fiona's father, a frog who became a king without turning into a prince, expires in a comically drawn-out scene that Garbo's Camille would have killed for. Why Fiona isn't the next in line to the throne is anybody's guess, but it doesn't really matter, because Shrek doesn't want the job either. That's why he sets off to find Arthur (Justin Timberlake), a high school nobody who, with a little help from Merlin (Eric Idle), may wind up a somebody.
Meanwhile, Prince Charming is up to his old tricks, organizing an invasion of Far Far Away by a Delta Force of fairy-tale, storybook and nursery-rhyme villains - ugly stepsisters, evil queens, Captain Hook, etc. Shrek the Third continues its assault on the stories that have been passed down for generations, but there doesn't seem to be much new ground left to break. Likewise, Donkey and Puss in Boots, though arguably as funny as ever, fail to cast a spell. Even the Gingerbread Man, who hasn't gotten that much screen time, seems a little stale. There obviously wasn't any reason to bring him back except for the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. And that goes for the movie as well. With the prospect of Shrek the Fourth hitting movie theaters in another few years, Far Far Away is starting to seem too close for comfort.