Soon after the events of Shrek 2, the frog king of Far Far Away (John Cleese) is dying. On his deathbed (or lily pad) he names Shrek (Mike Myers) as heir to the throne. But Shrek just wants to return to his swamp and stay out of the limelight. Luckily, just before he finally croaks, the frog names another possible heir – Arthur.
While Shrek, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) go on a quest to find Arthur (Justin Timberlake), Fiona (Cameron Diaz) teams up with the spoilt, rich princesses of Far Far Away to take back the throne from usurper Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), Fiona’s jilted rescuer from the previous film, who’s organised a coup d’etat (or a coup de Fort Fort Lointain) with the help of a range of fairytale villains.
I had to re-watch this film ahead of watching Shrek 4, since it made virtually no impact on me when I originally watched it in the cinema. While Shrek 2 introduced series stalwarts including Puss, the land of Far Far Away and Prince Charming; Shrek the Third brings in Artie and Merlin, who tellingly don’t even get a mention in the next film. Teenage Artie is a down-and-out loser at his medieval high school and Merlin is a scatterbrained ex-teacher, voiced by Eric Idle. Both of these ideas work better on paper than on screen. Artie reigns supreme as the most boring character in the franchise, complete with moralistic speeches, and Merlin is annoying and not very funny.
In the first two films it was clear what was at stake, but the main aim of this film seems to be stopping Shrek becoming King. It’s an interesting twist that Shrek and Arthur have to wrangle with each other to see who has to be the king, but it’s not the franchise’s subversive best. The Shrek of the first two films was an outsider who hated the world because the world hated him. He was a character the misfit kids with no friends could relate to. In the third, he has become accepted, so this role is passed on to an actual teenager in an actual high school. A metaphor becomes literal, and through this also becomes boring.
We’re introduced to popular, sporty Lancelot at Artie’s school, but he has no more involvement in the story, and Artie never wins over his peers. Lancelot could have been revealed to be related to Charming and come to his aid in the finale, particularly since the two characters seem to be animated with the same face. The ‘meet the parents’ plot of Shrek 2 is here replaced with some sort of quest for something of little consequence.
Where the first two films gave everyone something to do, here Donkey and Puss are simply two talking animal sidekicks, and so their shtick doesn’t get boring there’s a gimmick where their voices are accidentally switched which has no effect on the plot. Fiona is at her ass-kicking best (even while pregnant with triplets) and the role of the princesses and her mother (Julie Andrews) is the most refreshing aspect of the film.
There’s still a handful of good gags and music, as well as an abundance of film references – some of them remarkably obscure, which is enjoyable for us goblins. But without anywhere left to go, it’s surely time for Shrek to be allowed to return to his swamp in peace.