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Shrek and Sex and the City: the latest big-screen sequels are not equals

by Mark Burger

Shrek Forever After is being touted as the final chapter in the blockbuster animated franchise, and although it ought to please the kids, it’s clearly evident that the series has just about run its course. The freshness of the first film, which was released in 2001 and won the first Academy Award as Best Animated Feature, has weathered over the course of nine years.

The new film, directed by Mike Mitchell, is essentially an “ogre-esque” (“ogre-ian”?) riff on the 1946 Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life, as the title character (again voiced by Mike Myers) finds himself a little constrained by domestic life. He wishes he could just be a real ogre again for a day.

Enter Rumplestiltskin (voiced by Walt Dohrn), who offers Shrek the chance to live one day as if he’d never left his old swamp. However, if you’re at all familiar with the original story of Rumplestiltskin, you know that his contracts always come with a wicked clause.

Shrek gets his wish, but not the way he expected. Propelled back in time, he finds that the countryside has fallen into ruin because Rumplestiltskin has assumed total and absolute control. Shrek must therefore reacquaint himself with such old friends as Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), Donkey (voiced by Eddie

Murphy) and Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) — who of course have no idea who is he — if he is to stop Rumplestiltskin, make things right in the world, and return to the domestic comfort he’d unwisely taken for granted. Otherwise, when the day ends, he will cease to exist and Shrek will be no more.

Even with a time limit, duly monitored by Rumplestiltskin, the film’s pacing is a little too relaxed to generate much suspense, even though its primarily one with comic overtones. Nevertheless, the cast members (especially Murphy and Banderas) still imbue their animated characters with energy and enthusiasm.

Other familiar voices include those of Mary Kay Place, Jane Lynch, Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Kathy Griffin and even Ryan Seacrest — although some are heard only briefly. Julie Andrews and John Cleese, encoring as Fiona’s royal parents, could’ve knocked out their voiceover contributions in a matter of minutes.

At its worst, Shrek Forever After is painless family fare, but even its best moments don’t equal the best moments in the first film (or even the second). The film is not without its visual enticements and some good laughs, but the inspiration’s becoming a little threadbare. This is one case where familiarity breeds familiarity.

In the case of Sex and the City 2, familiarity breeds contempt. The second big-screen extravaganza based on the hit HBO show very much suffers from a severe, possibly incurable, case of the “terrible twos,” which is ironic because that term does come up in conversation during the film, when Charlotte (Kristin Davis) complains that she’s overwhelmed by her two young daughters — this despite the fact that she has an attentive, doting husband (Evan Handler) and a full-time nanny. Imagine the tragedy if she couldn’t afford one and — gasp! — had to raise the kids herself.

That’s a major problem with Sex and the City 2: Given that the four ladies look fabulous, are clearly blessed with financial security and three of them are married (pretty happily, by the looks of it), their constant whining about how tough their lives are smacks of ingratitude and selfishness. Little wonder that when central character Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) vents her frustrations, her husband — the ubiquitous Mr. Big (Chris Noth) — reacts with incredulity.

Here, the popular Sex and the City characters don’t come off as endearing or quirky, they come off as annoying and ungrateful. Carrie is a bestselling novelist, yet when she reads a negative review of her latest book in The New Yorker, it’s tantamount to utter, inconsolable distress. (Wait till she reads the reviews of this movie!) The ever-foxy Kim Cattrall vamps it up as the seductive Samantha, who arranges for the gals to take a trip to Abu Dhabi, although once there her lusty (mis)behavior causes considerable problems. As for Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda, she’s not happy with her job. That’s about all she has to do in the film, actually.

Running just under two and a half hours, this bloated farce will undoubtedly reap some reward at the box-office thanks to the builtin audience, but even the most fervent fans — many of whom expressed (correct) disappointment in the first 2008 film — will be hardpressed to find anything worthwhile beyond the surface accouterments.

Although the actors are very much at ease playing these characters by now, and Davis has wisely dialed down the mugging that constituted the majority of her performance in the first film, there’s nothing new or even remotely fresh for them to do. The trip to Abu Dhabi offers a new locale for them to trot out the same old shtick. Perhaps if the gals had been waylaid to the Gulf of Mexico and had to deal with a gigantic oil spill, that would be funnier than watching them flounce around the Middle East in the lap of luxury and reveling in every wretched excess. If only they knew how lucky they really have it.

Beauty is only skin deep, and in the case of Sex and the City 2 (and its predecessor, to a lesser extent) it’s tantamount to being shallow. Everything in the film looks great, from its leading ladies to its Patricia Field costumes to its picturesque locations in Morocco (where the film was shot), yet the end result is a film of almost no consequence. It’s a fashion show in which the models talk. They talk a lot, too. But they don’t say much.

In the end, Parker, Cattrall, Nixon and Davis got a nice trip to Morocco. All we get is a lousy movie.

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