The 'greatest fairy tale never told' (as the original tag line put it) is missing a bit of its magic in this, the DreamWorks Animation CG fable about the big green ogre and his oddly familiar friends. With a new director and writers but not much in the way of new characters, Shrek The Third puts the emphasis more on family themes and less on the sort of witty comedy that gave the first two films their enjoyable edge.
A box-office happy ending still seems likely, but the worldwide take will perhaps fall somewhere between the $479m earned by the 2001 original and the whopping $920m pulled in by the 2004 sequel.
Paramount opens the new instalment ultra-wide in North America next week, in the mid-May slot that worked so well for the first two outings. This time, however, the competition will be daunting, with the film arriving in cinemas just two weeks after Spider-Man 3 and one week before Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End.
Paramount Pictures International will roll the film out in most other territories through the second half of June and July, to coincide with school holidays. That pattern should allow Shrek The Third to emulate its immediate predecessor and gross more internationally than domestically.
DVD revenues will also be crucial, and, with franchise spin-offs including a holiday TV special and a Broadway musical in the pipeline, DreamWorks will be keen to improve on the lower-than-expected DVD/video sales for Shrek 2.
The script - credited to the Who Framed Roger Rabbit' team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S Seaman as well as first-time director Chris Miller (head of story on Shrek 2) and Aron Warner, producer of all three instalments - has Shrek (again voiced by Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Diaz) living in Far Far Away but eager to start married life on their own back in the swamp.
When the King (Cleese) dies, Shrek balks at taking over the crown and goes off with Donkey (Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Banderas) to find alternative heir Artie (Timberlake), a medieval high school outcast.
Meanwhile Prince Charming (Everett) joins forces with the fairytale villains to regain what he thinks is his rightful place on the Far Far Away throne.
The themes of parental and familial responsibility - with Fiona pregnant, Shrek spends much of the time worrying about being a dad, while Artie frets about the burdens of kingship - seem designed to widen the franchise's demographic appeal. So does a soundtrack that combines songs by current pop names such as Wolfmother, Fergie and Macy Gray with tunes from baby boomer favourites like The Ramones and Led Zeppelin.
The animation is noticeably more sophisticated than in the previous films, with more expressive faces and realistic backgrounds. But in other, more important respects the third film is less appealing than its predecessors.
Shrek himself is inevitably harder to root for this time out, being less of an outsider than he was in the earlier stories. And the new instalment delivers fewer sharp one-liners and clever plays on folklore, relying more on straightforward slapstick and comedic contrivances to produce its laughs.
While there are a number of new cameo additions to the voice cast, the film suffers from the absence of the Fairy Godmother character voiced for the second instalment by Jennifer Saunders and from the early departure from the action of Cleese's bumbling King.
Neither of the two main new characters adds much to the proceedings. Cleese's Monty Python cohort Eric Idle gives energetic voice to Merlin, portrayed here as an eccentric professor recovering from a nervous breakdown, but the role is relatively small.
Pop superstar Justin Timberlake (who has appeared in live action movies including Alpha Dog and Southland Tales) is fine as Artie, but the character looks and feels bland.
Paramount Pictures International
John H Williams
Jeffrey Price & Peter S Seaman
Chris Miller & Aron Warner
Main cast (voices)
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