Let's just admit it: Whether you want to or not, you're probably going to end up seeing Shrek the Third. You know a kid, maybe. Or you've got one or two kids yourself. Or you'll end up having some. Or not even that: Maybe you'll just be home, on the couch and channel surfing, when you'll be ambushed by a plasticine CG ogre with Mike Myers' voice. The Shrek films are pervasive, constant, and insanely profitable, and they aren't going anywhere. Better to suck it up now and accept that it's just going to happen, sometime, somewhere, somehow: You're going to see Shrek the Third.
So here we are, third time around, and it's much the same as the first and the second. Shrek, the big green ogre voiced by Myers, still tromps through a satirical fantasyland called Far, Far Away, towing along sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas). This time, Shrek's tasked with finding Far, Far Away's new king, who happens to be a dorky teenager, Prince Arthur—or, as he prefers to be called, "Prince Artie." (That's a name that, like most of this film, bears a manufactured sheen—sure, the name has a supposedly hip and clever veneer, but it actually feels depressingly un-hip and decidedly un-clever.)
Prince Artie is voiced by the one and only Justin Timberlake, who's ditched his "SexyBack" croonin' to play Artie, the last hope for a kingdom besieged by the evil Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). So while Shrek, Donkey, and Puss In Boots try to talk Artie into becoming king, Prince Charming invades Far, Far Away's castle, trapping Shrek's wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and her slew of girlfriends. In one of the film's more promising—and thus disappointing—aspects, Fiona's pals are Cheri Oteri as Sleeping Beauty, Amy Poehler as Snow White, Maya Rudolph as Rapunzel, and Amy Sedaris as Cinderella. I hereby challenge you to pick out who's who, though, since none of these talented comediennes get any good lines.
But don't be fooled: While there might be a hastily-scrawled plot outline around here somewhere, Shrek the Third is less a legit family comedy and more a series of five-minute-long, YouTube-ready clips that've been strung together to create an 85-minute-long distraction. (Challenge number two: Name one other movie that scrapes by at just over an hour, yet still feels twice as long as it should.)
Which isn't to say there isn't some good stuff here, because there is. Eric Idle voices a great Merlin; there are a few sarcastic jabs at classic Disney films; watching Prince Charming interrogate Pinocchio (Cody Cameron) is witty and funny; and a sequence in Prince Artie's high school (complete with "Just Say Nay" banners and "I Suck-eth" notes taped to backs) is sharp. But with Shrek the Third's insecure, frenetic pacing, those are just a few gags out of roughly four billion, and most of the others fall flat. (The Gingerbread Man shits a gumdrop when he's nervous! Get it?!) And regrettably, directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui stick to the series' increasingly tired tactic of cramming in as many pop culture references and soundtrackable songs as they possibly can: Next time you're wondering why today's kids have attention spans of 4.3 seconds, just think back to Shrek the Third's singing frogs (they sing "Live or Let Die"... at a funeral!), which are quickly followed by Donkey's wistful rendition of "Cats in the Cradle," which leads to Snow White storming a castle to the strains of "Barracuda."
For such a short and harmless film, it's strangely exhausting and angering: If you spend too much time thinking about its obligatory fart jokes or its half-hearted moral, Shrek the Third will make you wonder how one film can highlight all the dumbest parts of American pop culture, or how so many talented actors and so many supercomputers can crank out something so uninvolving. You might even decry the state of most American animation, wondering where and how it all went so horribly wrong. Troubling thoughts, all, but ultimately, they're irrelevant ones: Just like the rest of America, you're going to see Shrek the Third. It's everywhere, gargantuan and inescapable. Best to sit down, clench your jaw, get through it, and try to block out the applause and laughter filling the theater.