A Bray Old Time: The usual suspects assemble for Shrek the Third.

Sign up for our free newsletter

A bored lead actor…a swampy odor of malaise…a surfeit of villains and screenwriters. Third time’s always the harm, whether it’s X-Men, Spider-Man, or the bumptious Shrek franchise, whose first two installments managed to smuggle a scandalously good time into the robes of family entertainment. No longer. Aimless, rootless, and fizzless, Shrek the Third is a cautionary tale of talented people defeated, almost in advance, by their own success. A combined worldwide gross of $1.4 billion generates a momentum that no single human can stop. But the film’s premise smacks of wishful thinking for some brakes: Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is offered untold riches to be king, but he runs screaming in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, his search for a replacement takes him straight to a high school underachiever named Artie (Justin Timberlake), whose ego must be reinflated through the imparting of Life Lessons. Any hope of enjoying the film, consequently, falls on the burly green shoulders of Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who, in the face of a palace revolt by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), forges a resistance army of storybook heroines (a plotline rather too close to Happily N’Ever After). This piece of guerrilla fantasy quickly comes to naught, too, and it becomes clear that directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui aren’t going to take us anywhere we haven’t already been. Even the soundtrack follows the old template: schlock anthems (“I’ve Never Been to Me”) alternating with mournful ballads (one by downer king Damien Rice). Now and then some of the old anarchic energy breaks through, like a pyramid of frogs croaking “Live and Let Die,” or Donkey and Puss in Boots cavorting to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again).” But the dominant theme of Shrek the Third is the shouldering of duty, and no one seems more weighed down than Myers, who gives what’s easily his most anemic performance to date in any medium. Then again, try to imagine anyone relishing a line like “Just because people treat you like an ogre doesn’t mean you are one.” As I watched Shrek subside into his bog of benignity, I was reminded of what Greta Garbo purportedly said after seeing the fairy-tale finish of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast: “Give me back my beast.