RATING |

In "Shrek The Third" they keep calling Shrek an ogre, but you just don't believe them.

The Shrek in this disappointing sequel is still voiced by Mike Myers, he's still green, and he's still burly. But this Shrek is frightening to no one and beloved by all — more like Barney in a green leisure suit.

Donkey (Eddie Murphy) has gone from a braying, bothersome ass to a huggable plush toy. Same for Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), whose purring vanity used to drive Shrek nuts.

Now they're a happy fam-i-lee, a notion that at one time would have made Shrek barf. And speaking of barf, where are the boogers, the farts, the B.O., the halitosis? The surly attitude?

Gone, daddy, gone. Replaced by a guy who's now a sweetly devoted husband (whipped, some might say), dutiful son-in-law, loyal friend, obedient errand boy — dispatched in this sequel to find the rightful heir to the throne of Far Far Away.

It's a mission that allows the sequel to cast its satiric net over the legend of King Arthur. Shrek (along with cat and donkey) is in the hinterlands looking for the king's distant cousin, Arthur, voiced by Justin Timberlake and presented here as a medieval high school misfit with confidence problems. (Incidentally, any movie that requires Shrek to bond with Justin Timberlake has completely lost its bearings.)

The perilous journey back to Far Far Away requires the assistance of the sorcerer Merlin, voiced by Eric Idle, whose presence here invites comparisons to Idle's Arthurian parody "Spamalot," which exposes just how Funny-Not this sequel is.

About the only "Shrek" character to maintain any sort of consistency is Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who makes a bid for the vacant throne, recruiting an insurgency of storybook villains. But wait... isn't that Shrek's constituency? Isn't Shrek the misjudged, kid-lit bad guy who teaches that looks can be deceiving? Just as Prince Charming does in the reverse?

The hero-villain role reversal that made the first movie such a fun novelty has gotten awfully messy. And there simply isn't enough rapid-fire comedy to spackle the cracks, perhaps because DreamWorks animators also have been tasked with providing visual gags for half a dozen TV commercials.

Many of the jokes are stale and calculated, as though dictated by corporate committees mindful of the franchise's all-ages audience — a joke here for dad, one for mom, one for teens, one for kids. This was probably unavoidable. Shrek was originally positioned as an antidote to the corporate, pre-fab, over-engineered storytelling that had petrified Disney animation.

Now Disney is in the middle of a Pixar makeover, and "Shrek" is the wheezing franchise, under the same debilitating pressure to give fans what they want (something new, like the original) within the crushing framework of the brand they already know.

Some of this seems to have seeped into the story. Shrek is a now man who glumly accepts the responsibilities and consequences of domestication — chores and kids. The empire is crumbling, the boss is dead, and Shrek must fill the vacuum. Vicious factions are arrayed against him. Shrek, onetime carefree bad boy, does nothing but fret and worry. (Wait — he's not Barney, he's Tony Soprano!)

Franchises very quickly get to the point of looking tired and spent. "Shrek The Third" has all the earmarks, just none of the earwax. *

Produced by Aron Warner, directed by Chris Miller, Raman Hui, written by Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Chris Miller, Aron Warner, music by Harry Gregson Williams, distributed by Paramount/DreamWorks.