Shrek Forever After is a sequel to the highly successful Dreamworks Shrek series. The first three movies built on Shrek the ogre's rise to power from anonymity after saving Princess Fiona. Shrek is in line to become king of the kingdom named "Far Far Away" after Fiona's father dies. He later passes the kingdom on to a rightful heir of the king and spends his time living blissfully in his swamp with his wife and children. But the ravages of middle age bring on an unbearable level of monotony for Shrek as Shrek Forever After begins. Shrek grows weary of the pedantic life he thought he wanted and pines for the days when he was feared by the people of the kingdom. He longs for the "freedom" of not having a wife or children. This longing leads him to a chance encounter with Rumpelstiltskin, who promises him the freedom and ferocity of his youth for one day if he will only exchange one day of his own life. Shrek happily signs the agreement without reading the fine print.
His life is magically transformed into his youthful self, replete with terrified townspeople and utter freedom. While he relishes the return of days gone by, Shrek fails to realize that Rumpelstiltskin chooses Shrek's day of birth as the day of exchange. Since Shrek then has no day of birth, the day to which he has chosen to return will be his last. Through a chance meeting with Donkey, who has no knowledge of their friendship, Shrek becomes aware of the exit clause in his contract: if he kisses his one true love, the contract is voided. Unfortunately his one true love, Fiona, has no idea of who he is either. Instead she has grown to a position of leadership in an ogre resistance which has designs on taking Rumpelstiltskin down. Shrek joins the resistance as a foil for trying to get a kiss from Fiona and end the debacle, but even that solution is more complicated than he realizes.
One of the qualities of the Shrek series is the realization by its poducers that children aren't simply taken to movie theaters and dropped off by negligent parents. This is the fourth Shrek movie I've watched in the theater with my daughter. All of the movies, including this one, appeal not only to children, but also to their parents by making constant cultural references and allusions that only the parents will find humorous. While this movie appears to be directed at children (as will the merchandising), it is really a commentary on the life change people (especially men) experience as youthful exuberance and freedom give way to long term relationships and family responsibilities. The film intends to remind the middle aged of why they chose to leave the life situation of their youth and why they should never abandon their families in the pursuit of something they've left behind. The producers do a terrific job of portraying that tension, even if it is through the experience of a large middle aged green ogre.
The movie suffers in part because all the characters whom viewers have grown to love are completely different from who they were (because Shrek was never born). Those recast characters are simply not as interesting as they were in previous movies. Their relationship with Shrek was the catalyst that enlivened their personalities. Without that relationship they appear bewildered and overwhelmed with the situation. There is also significantly less creativity in this movie as compared to the others. The hilarious liberties taken with characters from fables in the past are mostly absent. The Pied Piper doesn't have a speaking part, and his appearance fails to contribute much to the tension between Rumpelstiltskin and Shrek. Rumpelstiltskin is not as effective of a foe as Lord Farquat, the Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming were in previous films. He lacks their level of humanity, and his vanity is simply not as funny as theirs. Your children will beg you to see this film because of the success of earlier Shrek films. Go and see it for their sake, but don't expect as much enjoyment for yourself. You'll certainly have some great laughs, but this movie doesn't quite live up to the quality of its predecessors. I give it 3.5 stars out of five.