This may be the final installment of "Shrek," the franchise, but Shrek, the ogre, is having a midlife crisis. The once terrifying, now domesticated father of three finds himself at the beginning of "Shrek Forever After" grappling with the kind of existential ennui that only a frantic kid's birthday party can inspire. Screaming children, cake gone wrong, and that pathetic, gnawing feeling that, wait, didn't I used to be cooler than this? Oh, Shrek, we feel you.
But while another man might have an affair with his aide or get unseemly hair plugs, Shrek is, after all, a denizen of Far Far Away. So, instead, he finds himself in the lair of that most notorious wheeler-dealer -- Rumpelstiltskin. And faster than he can say, "I should really have my lawyer go over this," he's signed the world's crappiest contract, buying one day of carefree ogre mongering in exchange for one forgotten day of his life. Unfortunately for Shrek, Rumpelstiltskin chooses the day he was born, thereby negating his entire existence. And it turns out that a world without Shrek is a bleak, Rumplestiltskin-ruled place. Holy "It's a Wonderful Life"!
Will Shrek make things right via a true love-based loophole before he's obliterated entirely? Can he change the sorry destinies of his beloved Fiona and his friends Donkey and Puss in Boots? Can he butch up and appreciate how much he already has before it's gone?
After an uninspired middle period, the "Shrek" series has, like the revitalized character himself, roared back to form. Like last year's "Up," this isn't merely a cute kid's movie with funny one-liners and adorable critters. It's a soulful meditation on the age-old question: Is that all there is?
And while Shrek himself, once again deftly voiced by the better-heard-and-not-seen Mike Meyers, wrestles angst with aplomb, it's Fiona (Cameron Diaz) who emerges as the true hero of this installment. With no Shrek to save her, the cursed princess of the first film becomes an ogre warrior, fighting to save her people from the scourge of Rumpelstiltskin and his army of witches. But this Fiona isn't simply a badass -- she's a lonely, painfully embittered girl who's spent most of her life trapped in a tower. Diaz, a vastly underrated actress, has a natural affinity for the complexity of Fiona and gives her character both a warm maternal spark and a flinty protective shell. "I saved myself," she tells Shrek, making it sound less like a declaration of strength than an admission of pure, tormented isolation.
Bringing up the comic relief rear are Antonio Banderas as a now pampered, out-of-shape Puss in Boots and Eddie Murphy as the perpetually slow on the uptake Donkey, amazed that he's a dragon's babydaddy in an alternative reality. ("Are my kids cute, or do they just make people uncomfortable?" he muses.) The hastily put together 3-D effects rarely wow, but that's hardly the point. The movie's strength isn't in characters leaping off the screen, it's in Shrek's anguished, George Bailey-like desperation to get back to a world where his children exist.
But will kids buy into all these adult crises? Not to fear -- there's still plenty of action, music and cheap gags. "Shrek" remains, first and foremost, a lively, family-friendly epic about a world of puppet boys and Pied Pipers. That it's also a touching reminder to parents that a diaper-changing, sleep-deprived life can, magically, be the happiest ever after is just icing on the gingerbread.