The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

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Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil


Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

Hell’s Granny comes to town.

 

(2011) Animated Feature (Weinstein) Starring the voices of Hayden Panettiere, Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Patrick Warburton, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, David Allen Grier, Andy Dick, Martin Short, Brad Garrett, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong. Directed by Mike Disa

 

There seems to be a reigning strategy in Hollywood that a successful original movie’s sequel can be made even more successful by adding 3D. This is of course regardless of whether 3D is necessary or annoying by its presence. It’s all just cash registers ringing up a higher sale.

The Happily Ever After Agency is back to business as usual. Nicky Flippers (Stiers), the froggy head of the agency, is doing without Red (Panettiere, taking over for Anne Hathaway) his best agency who is away for further training from the Sisters of the Hood, who achieve better Kung Fu thru baking. In order to get through them, though, she’s first got to best a somewhat arrogant troll (Grier).

Her partner Wolf (Warburton) and sidekick Twitchy the Squirrel are accompanying Granny (Close) on a rescue mission to retrieve Hansel (Hader) and Gretel (Poehler) from the clutches of the witch Verushka (Cusack). However, due to the incompetence of Wolf, the rescue goes sideways and Verushka escapes not only with her hostages but with Granny as well.

Red in the meantime discovers that the Sisters have created a recipe for a truffle that bestows ultimate power on the person who devours it. Only Granny knows the secret ingredient that makes the powers work, which was why she was kidnapped – Verushka, like Granny, having been a part of the sisterhood at one time. Red must forego further training and rescue Granny before she is forced to bake the unthinkable.

The first Hoodwinked was a surprise hit back in 2005 and a sequel was inevitable. While original director Cory Edwards remains on board, it is only as a producer, co-writer and the voice of Twitchy. In the director’s chair is Disa, a longtime animator getting his feature debut nod.

The animation is in many ways better – it is certainly brighter. Disa shows some imagination, particularly in the backgrounds of the fairy tale city. However, the whole fairy tale spoof thing that the first movie had in common with the Shrek franchise is wearing a little thin here. In all honesty we’ve seen it done elsewhere and better.

The main issue here is the 3D. It’s unnecessary most of the time – 3D tricks for their own sake – and frankly some of it is a little nausea-inducing. Obviously on a home video system, all of the 3D is lost unless you have a TV and Blu-Ray player with 3D capability and so it further illustrates some of the film’s deficiencies. I’m not a big fan of 3D for its own sake.

Still, some of the goofiness from the original is retained and the cast tries hard to maintain the mood -particularly Warburton, whose work as a voice actor (on TV shows like “The Tick” and “Family Guy”) have made him one of the best in the business, I think. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do but to act kind of demented and stupid but Warburton makes a game effort of it.

This is a movie that could have used a bit more cleverness and a bit less pizzazz. Sure, it’s going to keep kids reasonably entertained but discerning kids are going to watch this once and likely not turn back again while their parents are going to flee the room as soon as their rugrats are plopped down in front of the TV. It may make for a decent enough rental but as a purchase it probably isn’t the kind of investment that Jim Cramer would recommend.

WHY RENT THIS: Just enough goofiness to make this worthwhile.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies far too much on 3D effects that are lost if you don’t have a 3D system.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor and a bit of cartoon action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s release was delayed more than a year while Weinstein resolved a lawsuit brought on by the production company. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a trio of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.0M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happily N’Ever After

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Chernobyl Diaries

Renee


Renee

Not your typical fairy godmother.

(2009) True Life Drama (Two Streets) Kat Dennings, Chad Michael Murray, Rupert Friend, Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy, Corbin Bleu, William Peltz, Brian Patrick Clark, Rus Blackwell, J. LaRose, Ylian Alfaro Snyder, Kristi Engelmann, Brad Benedict, Rachael Yamagata. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

Drug addiction, self-mutilation, sexual predators, clueless parents – all of these things are issues our teenage girls face in the war that growing up has become. Fortunately, they don’t have to necessarily go out into battle alone.

However, that’s exactly what Renee Yohe (Dennings) did. An independently-minded teen from a comfortably middle class family in suburban Orlando, she and her inseparable mates Dylan (Saul), a budding musician and her BFF Jessie (Harkavy) navigate the party scene with the courage and innocence that comes with being a teen.

Renee has always had a thing for fairy tales, seeing beautiful gardens when life got messy. No garden can save her however when she falls in among the wrong crowd. She is hooked on drugs and abandons her friends and family, living in a drug culture cared for only by downtown pedi-cab driver Mackey (Bleu) who can’t protect her from a sinister looking druggie who has designs on her body.

She escapes from the drug house that she was in and calls Dylan. He is working as an (unpaid) intern for an agent for musicians, David McKenna (Friend) who is a former addict himself and does motivational speeches at churches and schools throughout Central Florida. He agrees to help her get into a rehab program but the director tells him that since Renee still has drugs in her system, they can’t accept her since they don’t have the facilities to help her through detox. She’s going to have to wait five days for her system to cleanse itself of the drugs before she’ll be allowed in.

After a fruitless attempt to convince her parents to let her crash at home, McKenna reluctantly decides to take her in where Jessie and Dylan can keep an eye on her. This is news to his roommate Jamie Tworkowski (Murray) who is impressed by Renee’s straightforward nature and her courage to tackle sobriety. It’s no easy thing for Renee to get sober, particularly with all the temptations around her including a downtown music festival, ghosts from the past and David’s own fragile sobriety.

While Renee finally makes the recovery clinic, Jamie is inspired to write Renee’s story. This leads to him founding a non-profit organization to help kids like Renee. That organization is To Write Love on Her Arms, which would become a respected and acclaimed agency  that helps kids get the treatment they need to get through their drug addiction.

This is based on the true story of Renee and the agency that she helped inspire. Frankowski nicely accents the gritty realistic tone of the film with flights of fancy, many depicting the fairy tale quality of Renee’s imagination. That makes for a lovely juxtaposition which offers some relief from what would be a grim fairy tale indeed.

Dennings, known more for comic roles, shines here. Renee isn’t always the most reliable of people and she doesn’t do the right thing all the time. She can be far from sympathetic in her actions until you remember what she’s been through and as you watch the story unfold as a child from an essentially loving environment makes such horribly self-destructive choices. It’s heart-breaking at times and yet Renee isn’t one to apologize or feel sorry for herself. Those qualities shine through in Dennings’ portrayal of her and creates an unforgettable character who’ll stay with you long after the movie is over. I don’t know if the real Renee Yohe is anything like how Dennings portrays her but if she is, she’s someone I wouldn’t mind meeting someday.

Denning has some pretty good support here too. Friend brings out the torment in McKenna’s soul, making him a stand-up guy who is a lot less strong than he appears to be. It’s a spot-on perfect of a recovering addict that Dr. Drew would no doubt approve of.

In fact, there’s a lot about this movie that Dr. Drew might praise. For one, Renee’s release from rehab isn’t the end of her journey but more like the beginning. She realizes, even if those around her don’t, that she is far from recovered and is very much at risk. She also knows that this will be a lifelong fight for her. I don’t know if the real Renee has remained clean and sober – I’d like to think she has – but realistically speaking the odds are far greater that she’s relapsed at some time. This is true for any addict, not just her – kicking drugs isn’t the kind of thing that can be really covered in a 90 minute movie adequately. You don’t get the sense of how it is an insidious disease that rears its ugly head whenever it isn’t wanted or needed.

The power of this movie is very evident. The local Orlando filmmaking community can take a lot of pride that a movie of this quality has come out of it and hopefully it will pave the way for more movies this accomplished. As for Renee, you will leave as I did rooting for her to make it and find that elusive happiness that is hard enough to find when we’re sober. You would also do well to remember – as I’m sure she’d be the first to tell you – that she is just one of many such stories, and there are probably some being written a lot closer to you than you might think.

REASONS TO GO: Enormously emotional with some excellent performances from Dennings and Friend. Realistic and “non-Hollywood” view at addiction.

REASONS TO STAY: Choppy pacing at times. Rape scenes may be too intense for sensitive souls or survivors of the crime.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some graphic depictions of drug use, plenty of foul language, a little bit of violence and sexuality including rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the crew came from the primary film schools in Central Florida – the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University and Valencia College.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crutch

ORLANDO LOVERS: The movie was shot around downtown Orlando and features the parts of the city that people who just visit the theme parks never see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Eye of the Hurricane

Puss in Boots


Puss in Boots

Some cats are just cooler than others.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie, Guillermo del Toro, Ryan Crego, Tom Wheeler, Conrad Vernon, Nina Barry. Directed by Chris Miller

Some characters are larger than life. Others are life-sized. Some are one size fits all. However, there are those characters, rare as they might be, that leave such an indelible impression that it doesn’t matter what size the canvas is, they seem to dominate it large or small.

Puss in Boots (Banderas) is a kitty raised in an orphanage in the tiny town of San Ricardo under the loving guidance of Imelda (Marie). He befriends Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Galifianakis), an egg who endures constant humiliation at the hands of his fellow orphans. Humpty longs to go on adventures, particularly finding the magic beans that will grow a beanstalk that will take them to a castle where the goose that lays the golden eggs resides. Such a goose would make him wealthy beyond imagining.

Humpty proves to have few scruples and ends up robbing a bank which the felicitous feline is framed for. Puss goes on the run, becoming an accomplished cat burglar, the finest in all of Spain. When he hears about the magic beans turning up in the hands of a couple of unsavory sorts named Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris), he runs into another party who is interested in the same merchandise – Kitty Softpaws (Hayek), a competitor of like skills.

It turns out Kitty has been meant to bring Puss aboard a more elaborate attempt to capture the beans, one masterminded by Humpty. Puss trusts the egg about as far as he can fry him but Humpty proves persuasive and the quest begins. Can Puss redeem himself and give up the outlaw life?

This is meant to be a prequel to the events of the Shrek movies and to the credit of the writers and filmmakers they take it far away from the landscape dominated by the jolly green ogre and place the action in what is identified as Spain but looks more like the California of the Zorro series (there are many allusions to Zorro, a nice touch as Banderas famously played the part in two hit movies). That reminds me a little bit of Rango, but there is definitely more of an Old California feel to it.

The Puss character that Banderas has brought to life is a compelling one. He is in many ways a stereotypical Latin hero – brave, loyal, honorable and irresistible to the ladies. He’s no different than Zorro in that regard.  However, he has the feline cockiness that is absent in the masked hero, plus a hint of a sophisticated cat thief a la David Niven in Pink Panther.

He has an able adversary in Hayek, who has worked with Banderas extensively in the El Mariachi series from Robert Rodriguez, among other films. She gives Kitty a certain sauciness (sorry, couldn’t resist) and a bit of a sexual tension (as sexual as tension can get in a family animated film anyway). They make a fine duo.

Humpty is not a terrific character, although Galifianakis gives it a good go. Unfortunately, he’s too much like the Syndrome character from The Incredibles as voiced by Jason Lee for my comfort. He’s just…a rotten egg (I’m having trouble resisting today).

This is a good looking movie that has some of the sass of the Shrek series but not enough of it, although it distances itself wisely in other ways. Puss could certainly carry a franchise all by his lonesome and I don’t doubt given the opening weekend success that a sequel that might bridge the gap between this movie and Puss’ first appearance in Shrek 2 might not be unwelcome.

I liked the movie and it has a good shot at a Best Animated Feature Oscar next February, with this being an off-year for animated features in terms of quality. However, this seriously doesn’t measure up with the best of the Shrek series let alone any of the Pixar gems; it’s kind of upper middle of the pack in that regard. Hopefully the next one will be better; until then, good enough will have to suffice.

REASONS TO GO: Puss is a compelling character and taking him completely out of the Shrek landscape was a smart move.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is nothing much to write home about. Nothing really got a huge laugh.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few jokes that are on the rude side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally meant to be a direct-to-DVD release but DreamWorks decided because of home video market conditions to make it as a theatrical release instead. It is the first film in the Shrek franchise not to be set in Far Far Away, Duloc or Shrek’s swamp.

HOME OR THEATER: If you have kids you’re going to see it in a theater sooner or later. Might as well make it sooner.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil

Shrek Forever After


Shrek Forever After

Rumpelstiltskin is hacked off when he finds out this isn't The Incredible Hulk.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kathy Griffin, Craig Robinson, Walt Dohrn, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Meredith Vieira, Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, Regis Philbin, Kristen Schaal. Directed by Mike Mitchell

One of the great ironies of life is that we rarely appreciate what we have until it’s gone, even when we are fully aware that we have everything we want. This is true of people and also true of ogres.

Shrek (Myers) has everything; a wife who loves him madly, three cute little ogre kids and good friends. Still, he is beginning to reach a bit of a mid-life crisis. He has lost his inner ogre-ness; no longer is he scaring villagers with his mighty roar. In fact, his ogre roar has become a party trick. He spends more time changing diapers than relaxing in his mud pit. To add insult to injury, tour buses stop regularly by his house to watch him stomp into his outhouse. It’s humiliating.

After an argument with his wife Fiona (Diaz) at their son’s first birthday party Shrek finds himself wondering what his life would be like if he hadn’t rescued his wife from the Dragon’s Keep all those years ago. This is overheard by Rumpelstiltskin (Dohrn), an evil little wizard who specializes in magical agreements that carry with them terrible consequences.

He offers Shrek the opportunity to return to being an ogre for a day. In exchange, he wants one day from Shrek’s childhood, one that Shrek would never remember. Shrek, after some initial misgivings, agrees.

He is whisked away via magical maelstrom to the village, where he enjoys terrorizing the villagers and their livestock and pets, and wallowing in the mud. Things are going swimmingly and he is enjoying his inner ogre again, but when he goes home he discovers his home is deserted. His friend Donkey (Murphy) doesn’t know him, and Far Far Away has a new king – Rumpelstiltskin.

It turns out that the evil little munchkin had taken the day Shrek was born, which means that when his 24 hours end, Shrek will cease to exist. In fact, in this reality, he’d never been born, so nobody knows who he is. It’s sort of a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the meantime, Fiona has become the leader of a rebel underground, the proud owner of a now fat, sassy and lazy Puss in Boots (Banderas). Her right hand man is a lantern-jawed ogre named Brogan (Hamm). And she has no time or sympathy for crazy stories about magical agreements and alternate realities. The only thing that can save Shrek and restore the world to as it should be is what freed Fiona in the first place – true love’s kiss. This time, however, Fiona doesn’t know Shrek and how can she love someone she doesn’t know?

This is billed as the final film in the series and there is a bit of an air of closure here. Director Mike Mitchell gets to rearrange Shrek’s universe pretty much as he will, but really doesn’t do much with it. One of the trademarks of the Shrek series is the number of pop culture references skewered, but strangely Mitchell chooses to rein that in, preferring to spend more time developing the story. That’s a mixed blessing. Mitchell is taking a chance which gives him points with me, and marks this movie as a bit different than any other entry in the franchise – but at the expense of some of the characteristics that made these movies so special to begin with.

Dohrn is a bit of a revelation here. He worked on the previous Shrek the Third as a writer, story artist and voice actor. He has a more pivotal role here and works it nicely, a bit of a cross between Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride and Jason Lee in The Incredibles. Rumpelstiltskin may well turn out to be the best villain in the Shrek franchise, right up there with Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother.

At its best, Shrek Forever After is as good as anything in the four Shrek movies. However, the movie suffers from being a bit uneven; the moments of genuine hilarity are a bit rarer than in previous efforts and when the movie isn’t at the top of its game, it’s actually a little flat. That lack of consistency is often frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has plenty of charm, and fans of Shrek are not going to be disappointed with this. It’s certainly much better than Shrek the Third. Unfortunately, it is far too uneven to rank with the first two movies of the series which may not be the fitting send-off that the series deserves, although again, there are moments that make for quite a graceful exit.

For me, Shrek should be irreverent, funny to both kids and adults and this one doesn’t have those elements to the same degree as Shrek and Shrek 2. It does have enough of those items to allow me to recommend the movie, although if you go in with high expectations you’ll probably be disappointed. I find the best I can do here is damn the movie with faint praise. If you don’t have kids who will absolutely drive you crazy if you don’t take them to see it, you might well wait for this to come out on video and see Toy Story 3 when it comes out instead.

REASONS TO GO: There’s a goodly amount of charm and some of the moments here are among the best in the series.  

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat uneven and leaves one with the impression that the series has run out of ideas.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of cartoon violence and some scatological humor but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dohrn, in addition to voicing Rumpelstiltskin is also credited as being “Head of Story.”

HOME OR THEATER: 3D didn’t add a whole lot to the movie; this would be fine at the multiplex but really, home video would do this just as proud.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away We Go