Shrek 2

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“Shrek” was a lark, a satirical cartoon with little depth. It existed mostly just to NOT be something: to not be Disney, to not be syrupy, to not be polite. That a sequel to such a one-shot idea could expand on its predecessor without merely repeating it is surprising, but that is what “Shrek 2” does.

“Shrek 2” is comfortable in its own green skin. It is not desperate to prove its rebelliousness. It’s content to take its funny characters, put them in funny situations, and let the story occur naturally. As a result, the story is more cohesive, and in many ways more amusing than the first film. It doesn’t feel like a parody anymore, but like an actual self-contained narrative.

Computer-animated even better than last time, Part 2 begins with Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) returning home to the swamp from their blissful honeymoon. They are soon greeted with an invitation to visit Fiona’s parents, the king and queen of Far Far Away, so that they and their subjects may greet the new prince. Shrek is hesitant, assuming Fiona’s and his ogreish appearance will put off the Far Far Awayans. Fiona insists her parents wouldn’t be so shallow. They head off to Far Far Away, with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) tagging along, naturally.

Of course Shrek was right. Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) is polite, but King Harold (John Cleese) begins butting heads with Shrek almost immediately. Turns out there’s an even deeper reason than Shrek’s appearance for Harold’s displeasure at Fiona’s choice of husbands: He had an arrangement with the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) that her handsome, stupid son Charming (Rupert Everett) would be the one to rescue Fiona from the castle and marry her. It’s not Harold’s fault that Charming took so long to do it, but Fairy Godmother is incensed nonetheless, and orders Harold to get rid of Shrek one way or another.

This decree turns out to be one of the film’s best moves, because it introduces a hitman character called Puss-in-Boots, voiced to unreasonably hysterical perfection by Antonio Banderas. Puss is a swashbuckling cavalier with impeccable sword-wielding skills who isn’t afraid to use his feline abilities to his advantage. (The cute kitten eyes can be a powerful weapon.) Soon Shrek, Donkey and their enemy-turned-friend Puss are headed for Fairy Godmother’s factory to seek her help, unaware that she’s the bad guy behind all this in the first place.

Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon (director, story artist and co-writer, respectively, from the first film), this is a giddy stew of pop-cultural references and fairy tales elements, flavored by a witty screenplay (by J. David Stem, Joe Stillman and David N. Weiss) and several vigorously funny performances. As has been the trend in animated films lately, the very casting is brilliant: John Cleese as a fussy king, Julie Andrews as a demure queen, Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) as a conniving, bitchy fairy, Larry King as an Ugly Stepsister — yes, Larry King as an Ugly Stepsister, and trust me, it’s hilarious.

There are parodical references to the things you’d expect, like “Lord of the Rings” and “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as some you’d never imagine, like “Cops” and “Sanford and Son.” But none of the comedy feels forced or obligatory. Even the spoofs seem to arise naturally from the story, rather than the story being developed around the spoofs. The movie thrills, amuses and delights better than its predecessor, and better than I expected it to.

Note: Stay for the closing credits.

A- (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, mild crude humor.)

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