After ogre couple Shrek and Fiona lumbered off into the sunset back in 2001, there were still a good number of fairytale targets left to aim for. So no wonder DreamWorks Animation hefted a sequel into the works as soon as it possibly could (the first movie's surprise $267-million take hardly hindered things, either). That the biggest of those targets - - everyone always lives Happily Ever After - - forms the basis for Shrek 2 was an immediate signal that we wouldn't necessarily be fobbed off with an inferior re-run featuring a bunch of ready-to-render characters going through the motions while their voice-actors sprint for their paycheques.
And, yes, that thankfully hasn't happened. Shrek 2 is a roaring, belching, farting success, another savvy, colourful CG burst of family-friendly comedy which compares to its predecessor much in the same way as Toy Story 2 did to Toy Story. The visuals have evolved noticeably, from subtle improvements (one scene depicts an exchange between Shrek and Donkey via their rippling reflections in a stream) to showier set-pieces. Best of these is a chaotic high-speed chase through a potion factory, with shattering vials sending drops of sorcerous sauce to work their flashy magic on unwillingly transmogrified splashees.
But more important than the visuals is the fact that all the original voice-cast - - whose interaction proved so sparky in the first film - - have returned, with some impressive new additions providing plenty more bubble to the chemistry.
Jennifer Saunders replaces John Lithgow in top baddie billing as Fiona's scheming, glamour-obsessed Fairy Godmother (nice touch, that); Rupert Everett simpers as her narcissistic son Prince Charming; and John Cleese and Julie Andrews both perform well as Shrek's exasperated but not entirely unsympathetic in-laws. Most impressive, though, is Antonio Banderas' portrayal of mercenary ogre-slayer Puss-In-Boots - - a feline Zorro-cum-Errol Flynn who's as willing to use his cutesy, big-eyed charms as he is his blade-flashing skills. Truth be told, Puss' presence is somewhat surplus to plot requirements - - as Donkey quips, ""The role of annoying talking animal is already taken!"" - - but the simple fact is, without spoiling any punchlines, he's one of the funniest things in the movie.
Any complaints should be directed elsewhere, then, though all quibbles are relatively minor. Despite looming at the centre of a better story than the original (which frustrated in its scrimping on the princess-rescuing quest element), Shrek remains the least interesting character, Myers' shallow brogue unable to disguise the fact that he has the least smirksome lines to deliver. The soundtrack, meanwhile, mainly consists of terrible cover versions by some oh-so-demographically appropriate flavours of the year. Prepare to wince hardest at Pete Yorn's whiney rendition of The Buzzcocks `Ever Fallen In Love?'...
The writers are also a little too desperate to cram in as many knowing movie references as they can (Alien, Spider-Man and ET among them). In fact, the script becomes so preoccupied with winking at you that you start to worry it'll forget to look where it's going. Happily it doesn't - the smart gags outnumber the clunkers to ensure this sequel remains a nimble, fleet-footed affair.
But it's not just about keeping those laughs coming - - the scripters also remember that a truly successful comedy has to engage the other emotions, too. As with the first Shrek, you really do end up caring for these characters, and hoping that, yet again, the central pair can overcome the obstacles hurled their way to deliver a climactic magical clinch. Once more, the theme revolves around love and identity, although this time the issue of racism (speciesism?) is raised: the awkward Meet The Parents dinner-encounter, in which Fiona's father reveals his disgust at the prospect of having green, trumpet-lugged grandchildren, provides some surprisingly poignant jabs.
It's also pleasing to report that Donkey gets plenty of opportunity to ass about at the dinner table, and it's not the only scene he steals. Cat-shaped additions aside, the show is well and truly swiped by Eddie Murphy's original "annoying talking animal", from his hoof-in-mouth gaffes to his high-tempo riffing with both Myers and Banderas. It's still strange to think that in two vibrant CG comi-fairytales, it's a stumpy, grey, potbellied mule who provides the most entertainment. And even stranger to think that there's still a movie about which you can say, "Eddie Murphy's the best thing in it..."