Shrek Forever After

Any movie franchise that reaches its fourth entry runs the risk of becoming too familiar, no longer a special event but merely another episode in a never-ending series. That’s how “Shrek Forever After” feels. If there were a “Shrek” TV show, this could be the two-part finale of, say, season 3. It isn’t bad. It just doesn’t belong on a movie screen.

Like a long-running TV series, “Shrek Forever After” assumes that we’re comfortable with the characters and will appreciate some twists. (In other words, if you’re not a regular viewer of the “Shrek” sitcom, now’s not the time to jump in.) Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are happily married with baby ogre triplets. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and his family come to visit regularly. Life is pleasant and pleasant.

And, it turns out, a little boring. You may recall that when Shrek learned Fiona was pregnant, in the last movie, he worried about the drudgery and stress of fatherhood. Now he is indeed fully domesticated, stuck in a rut. He’s a local celebrity, beloved throughout the land. Life is good, but … well, one can’t help occasionally getting wistful for the old days, when one was a terrifying ogre with no responsibilities.

Along comes Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a nerdy, hyperactive little troll who grants magical wishes. He blames Shrek for ruining his chances at becoming king of Far Far Away (this is explained in a flashback), and offers him a sneaky deal. The result is that suddenly, Shrek was never born. And without him, the world is vastly different. Now old man Potter owns everything!

No, not really. I don’t know how they did this without making a single “It’s a Wonderful Life” reference, but they did. Rumpelstiltskin is king of Far Far Away, ruling with an iron fist and aided by an army of witches. Fiona and the other ogres comprise an underground resistance movement. Her pet cat, Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas), is fat and lazy. Donkey pulls a cart for the royal palace. In this alternate universe, poor Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) is a gladiator slave. Shrek must find the escape clause in his deal with Rumpelstiltskin, convince Fiona — who doesn’t like him in this reality!!! — that she’s supposed to be in love with him, and so forth.

The first animated film by director Mike Mitchell (he also made “Sky High,” “Surviving Christmas,” and TV’s “Greg the Bunny”), “Shrek Forever After” moves along jauntily enough; a chase sequence on flying broomsticks is rather exciting; the pace is suitable. The screenplay, by Joshua Klausner (“Date Night”) and Darren Lemke, offers a handful of laugh-out-loud gags and scattered chuckles. Puss-in-Boots continues to steal the show. (This bodes well for his spin-off sitcom — er, movie — scheduled for 2011.)

But where’s the edge? What’s the point in telling THIS story? “Shrek” was a no-holds-barred parody of Disney-fied fairy tales. “Shrek 2” expanded the heart and humanity of the characters. Even “Shrek the Third,” which wasn’t great, was packed with inspired jokes. “Shrek Forever After” feels like it’s been phoned in. Everyone’s having a good time, but no one’s really motivated to do anything special. It’s how I imagine the producers of a sitcom would feel midway through the third season: Eh, not every episode’s gonna be great, but they’re all at least OK. The difference, of course, is that a so-so episode of a TV show doesn’t cost ten bucks to watch.

C+ (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, mild rude humor.)