Shrek the Third (rated PG for some crude humor, suggestive content, and swashbuckling action) has all the elements of the first two installments in the animated trilogy. Grumpy ogre? Check. Annoying-but-loveable talking donkey? Check. Histrionic Gingerbread Man? Check. But for all this, the latest Shrek doesn't quite work.
Here's the hook for the hijinks and sight gags: A dying Frog King (John Cleese) anoints Shrek and daughter Fiona (Cameron Diaz) as next in line for the throne. Ogre Shrek is useless at playing royalty and would rather go home to his swamp. He learns that some kid called Arthur could become king instead, so he sets off with Donkey and Puss In Boots to find him.
In the meantime, elegantly coiffed Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) has been reduced to playing in dinner theater until he conscripts an army of down-and-out fairy tale villains (wicked witches, Hook, and so on) to take Far Far Away by force. Princess Fiona and her fairy princess friends must repel the invasion.
Of course, this is the fairy tale genre disemboweled, so the princesses are sassy martial-arts-fighting dames with New York attitude voiced by Saturday Night Live comedians Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph. Snow White is tattooed, Sleeping Beauty is narcoleptic, Rapunzel's hair might be fake. The magician Merlin (Monty Python's Eric Idle) is neurotic and under therapy. In other words, the gags are strained.
The first two movies were funny because the idea of colliding fairy tale innocence with our postmodern cynicism was fresh. Now that we've gotten used to it, it's getting old. Shrek 2 had a touching moral about self-sacrifice; the third has a tired variation of believing in yourself. The music is fun and reaches almost rock-opera proportions (watch for the stolen lines from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody), and the film's good for a few laughs. But in the end, it's forgettable ever after.