I'd like to say that "Shrek the Third" is every bit as successful, as well-written, as hilariously delightful as its predecessors.
I'd like to say that. I probably would say that, except that the film has this teeny, tiny flaw:
Oh lord. Ohhhh lord. It's probably my fault for thinking Justin Timberlake couldn't possibly be any more irritating in movies than he is with his music; that sort of blind optimism just screams out to be punished.
As far as I'm concerned, it really is Timberlake and his character Artie who send things awry. Here's a series that derives its primary comedic and dramatic strength from its ability to invoke and undermine cliches - Shrek both is and isn't a typical ogre, Fiona is and isn't the princess-in-distress, the Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming aren't quite as benevolent as their names and appearances imply, etc. And at first, "Shrek the Third" continues that proud tradition of subverting expectations: you have the possibilities of Shrek as a father and Shrek as a monarch being put forth, and it's pretty much the Anti-Princess Diaries. Meanwhile, Prince Charming's scheme to usurp power hinges on a rather unorthodox appeal to his fellow fairytale villains.
All well and good... until we meet Artie. An unpopular high-schooler with daddy issues who's in love with the most popular girl in school and gets picked on by the jocks, only to be revealed as a figure of great destiny - a destiny he initially rejects only to come around at the last minute and grow into the role.
Could there be a bigger walking cliche?
It's all the more jarring because the rest of the cast - Shrek, Donkey, Puss, Fiona and the various supporting characters - are very much in step with that irreverent, iconoclastic tone that made them so endearing in previous films. Artie, by contrast, is a two-dimensional cutout (and Timberlake does us no favors by playing the role painfully straight, without the slightest bit of affectation), so utterly predictable that you can literally guess the entire span of his storyline after five minutes of screen time.
Without giving away the ending, I should also add that said ending is heavily sabotaged by Artie's character in what may have been an attempt to break the pattern of the previous films in terms of climactic showdowns, but ends up becoming an ill-advised and unsatisfying resolution that's at odds with the narrative thrust of the entire story - in other words, an hour and a half is spent building up towards an event that never actually happens. "Disappointing" would be putting it mildly.
On the other hand, there are quite a few amusing moments strewn throughout the movie: Shrek imagining fatherhood, his catastrophic attempt at playing the part of king, the "baby shower", the addled Merlin offering our heroes hugs, Lillian's surprising talent, Prison Break Starring Fiona and Friends, and much more. As a story, it pretty much falls apart towards the end, but taken as individual sketches, the comedy is every bit as solid as the first two films. And for that alone, it's worth a look. Just don't expect it to hold together quite as well as its predecessors.