Sequels struggle to improve where the first left off. Shrek had a successful, happy ending for its characters and had enough novel charm to it that it worked as a strong, efficient concept. Pulling punches at Pinocchio and other fairy-tale creatures, it knew the ground it was working on was original but limited. Doubling down on that for a sequel would not be possible. They had the characters, and they were surprisingly endearing. Shrek 2 knows that, hence why they are fired straight into the limitless setting of Far Far Away. It would’ve been irresponsible to restrict these refined, good-natured characters to a swamp and a forest, especially when there are pop-culture gags to be harvested elsewhere.
Definitely the strongest of the four in the series, for its ensemble scope and the good-humoured story is easy to dive in and out of. These are the simple notes of Shrek 2 that make it work so well, and they are adapted to the screen with confidence. There is faith in the new characters, a light reliance on the old ones and a gelling that brings these groups together. The heavy-hitting newcomers in John Cleese, Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Saunders add certain respectability to the series. That is not to say the first in the series is a laughable affair. Usually, big names are a bit of faith in the project. Having Julie Andrews appear in a supporting capacity has a similar impact to casting John Lithgow in the first Shrek feature. It allows for the main characters to develop a bit better and displays a nice bit of the usual rigmarole of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy’s brand of humour.
That is very much the core of Shrek 2. Its narrative is a tad sloppy and loses its way a bit in the middle. Set pieces that never quite define the role of the characters, the plot is lost significantly as we are introduced to character after character. We should be thankful these characters are strong. The dinner table escalation and grand finale do make for some inspired bits of entertainment, it is the centre of the piece that feels a tad weak in comparison. Shrek and the gang go off to steal a potion, and the hijinks that ensue are good-natured and a bit of fun, but lack any real creative weight. They steer the plot in the right direction, but it feels more like narrative padding than anything truly rewarding. These scenes have pockets of joy but are not at the same level as the rest of what Andrew Adamson and company have to offer.
Adamson returns to direct Shrek 2, pairing up with Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon to display both an understanding of the core character concepts, but also present fresh ideas. Many are replicant of the stigma of the times, the pop-culture references do get a tad grating from time to time, but they are endearing enough from a nostalgic perspective to work. Red carpet ribbings, reality television and its heavy influence on the social sphere, and just a hefty chunk of lowball humour moments. Shrek 2 shouldn’t work, but it does. It has a definitive quality about it. Knowing what it is and why it chooses to go down this avenue of fairly low-brow humour is a quality not quite found in the comedies of today. But, the comedies of today cannot rely on Myers’ horrid Scottish accent, placed into the mouth of a giant green ogre.