"Shrek Forever After" is about the big green ogre wrestling with the problems of middle age, and though he has a tough time of it, things could be worse.

For one thing, Shrek doesn't have to fret about getting fat and cranky. He was already both of those things. And he's already made the biggest decision confronting males of his age - do I wear my pants under my paunch, or over it? Shrek's an under.

So how are his problems made manifest? Well, his kids are in his face all the time, and his spouse is a constant, throbbing pain in his rear-end.

Beyond that, though, Shrek is starting to feel like a sellout. The onetime woodland outlaw, feared and loathed, is now a cuddly sideshow for tourists, who pay to gawk at his swampy abode, even watch him take a dump.

Corporate and domesticated, a condition that has dispirited not only Shrek, but apparently his writers, too. There is a pervasive sense in "Shrek 4" that the title character, a onetime antidote to soulless corporate animation, has become what he once detested.

Everybody seems glum about the process of squeezing the last dime out of this wheezing franchise, so it's perhaps not a surprise that the plot has to with selling one's soul to a sort of devil.

"4" opens with Shrek losing his temper at his own hectic birthday party, wishing he could be free of smothering obligation so he could return to the carefree, terrifying ogre of old.

He's granted this wish this by Rumpelstiltskin, fairy tale king of the crooked deal, in exchange for one day from Shrek's distant past.

When the hoodwinked Shrek signs off, Rumpelstiltskin chooses the day of his birth, and suddenly we're plunged into a dark, bizarro world wherein Shrek never existed.

Yes, it's the umpteenth variation of "It's a Wonderful Life." Shrek (Mike Myers) sees what life is like without wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and kids, sees the kingdom plunged into chaos.

To adults, it will mostly feel like a hackneyed rip-off, but it does improve on the Frank Capra scenario in one way. In Shrek's absence Fiona doesn't suffer the still-puzzling horror of becoming (gasp!) a single librarian.

Fiona is in fact gainfully employed as the leader of an ogre rebellion against the kingdom that Rumpelstiltskin now rules, although not with an iron fist.

He's a screechy, angry little twit with a fixation for wigs and expensive furnishings, and a bit of a lisp. You get a sort of Liberace vibe from this character that is vaguely unsavory. But whatever he is, he isn't funny.

Laughs come from standby sidekicks donkey and cat (Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas) who help Shrek set things right - the ogre has 24 hours to break the spell and get his family back.

You can bet that he does, but you can also bet he'll never recover the old Shrek mojo.