With Shrek 4-Ever After, we've reached the final Shrek movie in the series, and clearly this franchise has run its course. Yes, once Shrek has married and has kids, there's not much more to this fairy-tale left to tell.
That's why this time, the movie has to resort to the device of flashing back to a parallel history of "what happens if Shrek had never been born." Shrek now has three kids, and adoring wife, and an obsequious public, and he's kind of a celebrity trapped in a fashion cocoon of his own making. Even Shrek is so bored of his monotonous married life that in fact, that's the major plot point of the first act. Shrek Groundhog-Day's his way through the married routine enough times until he...and we...literally scream.
Enter plot device and villain number four: Rumpelstiltskin. Shrek unwittingly makes a bargain with Rumple: he'll trade one of the days of his youth for a fantastic day where he gets to be his old, free ogre self again. Unfortunately, the day Rumple takes is the day Shrek was born (creating the incongruous paradox of Shreck's ultimate non-existence).
The result is a re-hash of the plot from It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek wanders through a changed Far Far Away where Rumelstilskin is king, his children were never born, the world is in shambles, and his wife Fiona leads a band of ogre outlaws. There's one critical difference. While Jimmy Stewart wished he were never born - a kind of depression and self abnegation due to the heavy burden of life's circumstances - Shrek has had this fate thrust upon him not because of too little but too much ego. He's basically a typical over-heckled father who simply wishes to live the high life and be single again. So while It's a Wonderful Life built up a powerful story about personal redemption and seeing the value in oneself, Shrek 4 sets out instead to teach its hero some basic humility and thankfulness. It's a much simpler...and I dare say, less sympathetic... moral.
One is tempted to call this a story of our time - instead of needing to be bucked up, what today's generation needs is to be brought down a peg. But I suspect that's just not right, and one reason why this movie feels tuckered out. It's lost it's edge - the edge that the first two Shreks had particularly delivered, undercutting the Disney-fied morals of "ordinary life." Instead of feeling secretly relevant, it feels needlessly moralistic, as if its finally become the type of movie that the earlier Shreks used to parody. No wonder Shrek feels trapped.
There are other things about this film that make it less interesting than it could be. All the action takes place in Shrek's head. And in this alternative reality world...that must ultimately end...all the characters are much more interesting than in the world we're ultimately going to head back to. Wouldn't it have been fascinating to have had a real Fiona who was all Robin Hood and king of the forest, and a real Shrek who had to re-negotiate a modern marriage to a strong woman? All that fantasy is bottled up and dispensed with when it could have led to some of the more intriguing cultural subversions of the series.
Similarly, this Rumplestilskin is nice villain - he's got a particularly nice flare for wigs, a way with the witches, and a lovely way with words - but lacks the self actualization of, say, Fairy Godmother. However, I'd rank him second in the panoply of Shrek villains, and in a lot of ways, his semi-fey shenanigans keeps this story from totally sinking.
All this being said, Dreamwork's Shrek, even at this late date, is still one of the best-produced summer franchises, and the sly cultural parodies are all still there, even if they're all being severely undercut by the plot. "Happily Ever After" and "married with kids" just doesn't aren't supposed to be a reconcilable contradiction in the Shrek universe, which is why we get instead an inside-out movie where the real Shrek has been reduced to mere fantasy. It was great coming this far, but one can't help actually feeling a bit sad seeing Shrek ending up this series so conventionally... well... "whipped."