Shrek the ThirdSHREK THE THIRD

Shrek the Third finds its computer-animated ogre undergoing something of a mid-life crisis, and based on the evidence here, so is the series itself. In contrast to the constant hyperactivity and relentlessly aggressive pop-culture references of the first two Shrek films, this latest offering is notable for its distinct lack of aggression; the film hasn't completely shucked off the qualities that made its forbears such (literal) monster hits, but on occasion, it actually takes the time to curtail its smart-alecky, type-A tendencies and just breathe. In doing so, it stands as my favorite Shrek movie to date. Unfortunately, that isn't high praise.

The film not only finds Shrek (voiced, as ever, in Scottish-brogue style by Mike Myers) edgy about his impending fatherhood, but playing figurative father to geeky teen Arthur (Justin Timberlake), who Shrek hopes will assume the throne following the death of the king (John Cleese). A few other, less touchy-feely plotlines are introduced (including one with uncomfortable similarities to the animated abhorrence Happily N'Ever After), but Shrek the Third feels unquestionably like a coming-of-age story: a coming-of-middle-age story. With the CGI ogre feeling unsure of his place in the world, and his bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), forced into friendship with a blithely sarcastic group of fairy-tale hausfraus - among them Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty - the film is quieter and more honestly introspective, and subsequently more engaging, than the works that preceded it. (This, despite no less than three edifices and/or characters bursting into flames in the first 10 minutes.)

I only wish this animated feature were more animated. The visuals are consistently spectacular - although actual personalities are still nonexistent, CGI-ed people, and their dwellings, are becoming more and more realistic - but the storylines have been worked through in (at the very least) dozens of other movies, and the returning voice-over performers seem similarly lethargic.

Myers' readings are more soulful yet ultimately less exuberant than before; Diaz, as usual in this series, has nothing interesting to do or say; Antonio Banderas and Rupert Everett don't seem to be having much fun; and Eddie Murphy's vocal turn as the exhaustingly wise-cracking (and visually dull) donkey Donkey has, for me at least, reached the level of insufferable. (One of the film's inspirations finds Donkey magically switching personalities with Banderas' Puss-in-Boots à la Disney's Freaky Friday, but instead of doubling the comic effect, it just gave me two characters I wanted to shy away from.)

Even the new additions, though, don't add much. Timberlake has a couple of moments when comic inspiration reveals itself (he's great when fake-crying), but his readings, in general, are overly whiny and forgettable; playing a drip doesn't mean you have to be a drip. As Merlin, Eric Idle doesn't provide the inventiveness you'd hope for, and the talents behind the fairy-tale wives' club - Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Sedaris - are so generic as to be unrecognizable. (Your imaginings of their possible jokes are funnier than anything they actually say.)

Yet the movie isn't without great, hysterical moments. Just about everything involving that Mr. Bill proxy the Gingerbread Man slayed me; his dinner-theatre critique "This is worse than Love Letters!" was laugh-out-loud funny, but the pastoral dream sequence wherein his life flashed before his candy-coated eyes was even better. The gags involving the forced-into-truthfulness Pinocchio still work remarkably well, and there's a fabulous high-school parody that finds its students advised to "Just Say Nay" to drugs. (There's also the school's band, briefly heard playing - tunelessly and hysterically - Shrek's signature tune "All-Star.") And what can I say about Cleese's insanely protracted, amphibian death scene? For unapologetic, gaga hilarity, it's on a par with your pick of Looney Tunes classics.

Despite its overall aimlessness and eventual bombast (was it really necessary to make Julie Andrews' character a head-butting ass-kicker?), there's just enough cleverness in Shrek the Third to make me not dread the inevitable fourth intallment, not to mention Shrek the musical, scheduled to hit Broadway in 2008. Of course, I'm still not convinced that that's a good thing.


Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy in Delta FarceDELTA FARCE

Here's one from the No Surprise department: I didn't like Delta Farce, Hollywood's latest attempt to turn Larry the Cable Guy into a movie star.

Here's one from the Huge Surprise department: I didn't hate it, either. In its hopelessly lazy, rather embarrassing way, the movie's kinda smart.

Don't misunderstand me: Delta Farce is staggeringly unfunny and frequently distasteful, especially when you see the stunners the filmmakers have cast as Larry's romantic attachments - poor Marisol Nichols deserves a medal for that climactic smooch alone. And not to blithely disregard any legitimate accusations made against the film, but yeah, it's a little bit racist, and misogynist, and homophobic, and all the other adjectives that should make us loathe it.

Yet I can't quite. The movie may be beyond stupid, yet it isn't hateful in the same way Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector was, and it doesn't deserve the virulent critical beating it's receiving. (The terrible box office returns should be punishment enough.) Delta Farce is depressing lowbrow pap - The Three Stooges Go to Mexico - but it isn't wholly awful; the wit on display may be dumb-ass, but it's wit nonetheless.

Some reviewers have attacked the simple-minded jingoism of the film's "If we leave now, the terrorists win" philosophy, as Larry, Bill (Bill Engvall), and Everett (D.J. Qualls) attempt to save a south-of-the-border town from some ruthless (yet karaoke-loving) banditos. But there's nothing here to suggest that the filmmakers and stars agree with this mentality; they poke fun at their characters' nobly clueless patriotism in a way that doesn't seem at all geared toward Larry's expected fan base - Delta Farce could almost be read as a biting critique of Larry's fan base. The characters here, and their situations, are so ridiculously far-fetched that the jokes - while consistently unamusing - have the effect of making their participants look like utter morons. Yet what's to make us think that this is unintentional? (Beyond the crappy filmmaking, I mean.)

Delta Farce is tirelessly bad but doesn't strike me as brainless, and as much as I hate to admit it, I actually liked the film's setup (which finds the boys from Chattahoochee county, who assume they're in Falluja, being accidentally dropped in Mexico), mostly because I couldn't imagine the logistics involved in getting them there: Is the movie truly saying that Southerners - or, specifically, Georgians - are so imbecilic as to make their trek to Iraq via Mexico?

And perhaps the surest sign of Delta Farce's unexplored subversion lies in its poster, which Larry and the filmmakers must surely have approved, and which parodies the one for Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam saga Full Metal Jacket. The poster for Kubrick's movie stated, "In Vietnam, the wind doesn't blow, it sucks." Delta Force's states, "In this war, the wind doesn't blow, it hurls." It takes balls to associate Kubrick's movie about an unwinnable war with one that so freely references our current war in Iraq. Can a movie that does be completely disregarded?

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