The "Shrek" series has been the flagship for Dreamworks Animation since the first one was released in 2001, and I still remember what a breath of fresh air that first film felt like when it was released.  The second film is a textbook example of a bigger sequel that tries even harder than the first film did, to mixed results.  The drop-off in quality to the third film was breathtaking, and after checking, I'm pretty sure I never even wrote about that one.  I think I just figured the less said, the better.

Oddly, though, the "Shrek" films didn't sit well with me over time.  I stand behind the reactions I had when I saw the first two films, but the template they established for Dreamworks has not been a good one, creatively-speaking.  That legacy, as much as the films themselves, define my feelings towards "Shrek" as a franchise, and as a result, walking into the fourth film, my expectations were fairly low.  I say that not as a way of saying "Told you so" now, but more as a way for you to set your own barometer.  If you're a huge fan of the series and you are already revved up about this new film, then just go see it.  It's a "Shrek" film.  No doubt about it.

But if you're on the fence at all, let me share my impressions with you, and the reaction of the four year old who went with me.

"Shrek Forever After" uses Rumpelstiltskin as a way of telling an "It's A Wonderful Life" riff on the characters and situations that have become so familiar over the course of the film.  Rumpel (voiced by the head of Dreamworks' story department, Walt Dohrn) was evidently on the verge of making a deal that would have given him control of Far Far Away when Shrek (Mike Myers) rescued Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) back in the first film, and he's been harboring an off-camera grudge ever since.

As this new film commences, Shrek is living the good life.  Married with kids, surrounded by friends, settled into a routine, and of course, he hates it.  The way the first 20 minutes of the film are cut, it makes domestic life seem like a horrifying nightmare.  It's a very cynical start to the film.  I'm not the sort of reviewer who spends a lot of time worrying about the values that Hollywood sells with its films, but there are occasions when it becomes so blatantly offensive that it's impossible not to comment.  I understand that in terms of storytelling, they have to make Shrek's daily married life seem terrible so that it makes sense for him to wish that he could just go back to the way things were before he rescued Fiona.  But it's one of those over-simplifications that irritates me because of how inappropriate it is.  Any married adult knows that marriage is hard work at times, and that there are frustrations inherent to parenthood, and that routine is a genuine issue as we get older.  And even so, this sort of reductive nightmare version bothers me in a kid's film because it doesn't speak to the experience of the intended audience.  It seems like a really strange thing to use as the way in to the film, and it starts things off on such an unpleasant note that I don't think the film is able to recover.

Instead of being a joke machine like the first few films with occasional attempts at heart, this new film is basically one long, big downer.  It's a surprisingly dark and ugly ride to get to the staggeringly mediocre realization "You don't know how good things are until they're gone" message, which seems to be one of the five approved family-film messages that Hollywood recycles non-stop.  The world that Rumpelstiltskin makes after Shrek's wish goes disastrously wrong is a fairly crappy place, and the variations on the familiar characters don't really make much sense as logical extensions of what we already know about them from the series.  Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas), for example, didn't even know Shrek in the first film, so how would changing that movie radically affect him or change him?  At least with the way Fiona changes, I can see some sort of cause and effect.

Rumpelstiltskin is an amalgam of most of the villains from the series so far, a little bit of Farquad, a little bit of the Fairy Godmother, blended up into one creepy little dude with a wig fetish.  It's not a bad performance, but there's so little about him that feels new or interesting that he left almost no impression on me in the end.  The film's other new villain, The Pied Piper, is basically just an excuse for some weird disco jokes, and is so easily defeated as to be inconsequential.

Eddie Murphy returns as Donkey, and if anyone should feel slighted by this latest effort, it's him.  What a waste.  I assume they brought him back because they had to, but they certainly didn't give him anything to do.  Mike Myers sounds as bored in his performance as I was watching, and I'm actually amazed at how little humor there is in the film.  It's dry going for much of the running time, frantic more than clever.  Cameron Diaz is the one main cast member who still sounds completely engaged, and I'll say this for her... she has consistently been a huge believer in the series and dedicated to the character.  She's got the best material in the script, and she sells it as much as she can.

I've heard a few people say, "It doesn't matter what a grown-up thinks.  These are kids films."  I disagree with that, since I think Dreamworks wants the adult audience, and they were certainly chasing the grown-ups with the first two films.  But let's say this one is aimed only at young audiences.  I took my almost-five-year-old son Toshi with me to see it, and he ended up weirded out by it and sad for most of the afternoon afterwards.  It was an interesting reaction.  He told me at one point, several hours after the movie ended, "Daddy, that movie made me feel bad."  That's pretty much how it made me feel, too, so at least we can say that reactions should be the same across all age groups.

The film's biggest sin is simply that the franchise has run out of gas.  There's little left to do with the post-modern fairy tale, and these characters were rich enough to support one or maybe two movies... but four?  Not a chance.  As the confusingly-branded ads for this movie keep claiming, this is "The Final Chapter," even though Banderas keeps talking about his upcoming Puss In Boots spin-off.  Let's hope they have the good grace to stick to the promise and really end the franchise here, because no matter what, there's no meat left on this particular ogre's bones.  "Shrek Forever After" seems to prove that once a fairy-tale is over, you close the book, because everything after "The End" is a big fat blank.

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