Cartoons for children have come a long way in seventy years and the current state of the art can be seen in Shrek 2. Like Shrek, the sequel offers something for everybody and improves upon the first in every way. Jeffery Katzenberg and DreamWorks have picked up where Disney dropped the ink and paint and are the clear masters of this domain now. And yet because of their success with the form, it feels like "product" more than ever. Yes, it's entertaining. Yes, it's fun. But what was once a treat for the kids, and a field of play for creative adults who thought like them, has turned into a business model. Shrek 2 doesn't blow the franchise or anything serious like that, but it's no Snow White either.
It's not easy needing green.
When we last left Shrek, he'd fallen for Fiona, a plump lady ogre disguised as an Atkins-thin princess. Now it's the honeymoon and the trial of meeting the wife's folks, the King and Queen, that sets this chapter into motion. And before you can say Dennis Miller, Shrek and Fiona are in Far, Far Away, a fairy tale town that resembles Beverly Hills and has more in-jokes for adults than any family film I've ever seen. What used to be "jokes for the band," little asides that peppered the script and kept adults awake, are now expected, and lack the anarchy that fun once represented. Far, Far Away is a satire of Hollywood, complete with take-offs on Angelyne billboards and Rodeo Drive stores like Versarchery and Gap Queen. Get it? See, it's a fairy tale world where fairy tale characters live like movie stars. It has gated homes and premieres with Joan Rivers describing what Sleeping Beauty is wearing before the latter falls out of her limo and nods off on the red carpet. Funny, right? But there's a self-congratulatory air to this humor that makes me wonder at what point children ceased to be part of the equation. Like anything related to Boomers, it's really all about pleasing them. They can explain the jokes to the kiddies later.
Another prerequisite that's become an institutionalized part of animated films, and aimed at parental units more than their matching accessories, is star casting. Since Robin Williams torqued the process and threatened to overwhelm Aladdin with his hilarious voices and improvisations -- not! -- it has blossomed into what amounts to stunt casting.
In addition to the hipsters from the first Shrek that include Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy -- a demographic sweep -- we get a sequel injection of John Cleese, Julie Andrews and Antonio Banderas. In press junket interviews, the actors all do their part, but the sameness of these media floggings is starting to wear thin. There's John Cleese posing with a clay figurine of the King he's been chosen to immortalize. We might even see a bit of him emoting before a microphone as he brings his character to life -- over the course of the two or three days he came in to the recording studio so many months or years ago. Each star is delighted to be part of something that "their children and grandchildren" can see decades hence. But their true purpose is the lending of star watts that open movies.
Seeing one's heroes kowtow to the process is unnerving. And even knowing John Cleese was in this, it took me half the movie to realize he played the King -- that's how much his "performance" grabbed me. And I have to say, as big a fan of Mike Meyers as I am, he is getting dangerously close to becoming Robin Williams. Shrek 2 marks the 17th variation of some sort of Scottish character Meyers has portrayed in films and on TV, from his role as the Scottish Dad in So I Married An Axe Murderer to his SNL appearances as a Scottish store owner and a Scottish Soccer Hooligan, to the hairy, damp and Scottish "Fat Bastard" in Austin Powers, I'm up to my haggis in Scottish. It makes me wish Meyers had dared to be Dieter instead of The Cat In The Hat. At least it's a new accent.
Of the star turns, only Antonio Banderas gets attention as "Puss In Boots." Hampered by the strictly feline flaws of hairballs and licking himself, Puss is a hilarious standout. Do we need it to be Antonio Banderas to get the joke? No. But we need Antonio to push the movie -- so that's why he's here. And I can't get over the feeling that these actors are slumming, doing their role in an animated movie in the same way they take the Proust quiz on the back page of Vanity Fair. Let's see, I have my Tony, my Humvee, my part in a Dreamwoks movie... Add a hip soundtrack that includes takes on the Buzzcocks, David Bowie's "Changes" and cultural nods to "Livin' La Vida Loca" and the Mission Impossible theme and you have another layer of Boomer-reflective musical jokes.
Where's the magic you ask? Oh, baby. That's way gone.
In the end of course, Shrek 2 will be a big hit. I give it three out of five Old Navy t-shirts and two out of four soft pretzels here at the mall octo-plex. Expect to see lots of Soccer Moms and Dads in line with their kids, with Dad explaining who Jack Valenti is and why that MPAA joke was so hilarious. But if you ask me, I'd recommend going out and renting The Triplets Of Bellville over Shrek 2, something unique, starring no one who appears on Letterman. Triplets is one from the heart, Shrek 2 is one for the stockholders.
But man, that Sleeping Beauty gag -- oh yawn!