One reason so few fairy tales have sequels is that once the story gets to "…and they lived happily ever after," there's generally nowhere to go. Adapted from William Steig's children's book, the 2001 computer-animated movie Shrek was a snarky, irony-laden fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless, and a sweet one at that. So Shrek 2 is hamstrung from the beginning as an unnecessary follow-up to a perfectly good happily ever after. For some, an ending isn't actually happy until all the revenue streams have been tapped, and Shrek 2 suffers from the creative exhaustion of a sequel that didn't have to happen.
Resuming the action with an entertaining sequence that could easily have played over Shrek's closing credits, Shrek 2 finds brogue-talking ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and his new wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) on their honeymoon. Moments after returning home, they're reunited with their cartoon donkey pal (Eddie Murphy) and on their way to meet Diaz's parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews), who exiled their daughter years before. After an uneasy family reunion, the meddling of fairy godmother Jennifer Saunders and arrival of Prince Charming Rupert Everett throws the ogres' marriage into confusion. Apparently, the love-conquers-all message of the first film didn't quite sink in.
Even so, there's no doubt how the movie will end, and the heroes' wacky/arbitrary adventures never provide enough of a distraction from that inevitability. All the clever touches of the first Shrek return, but in diminished form. In full self-deprecating Spy Kids mode, Antonio Banderas makes for an entertaining Puss In Boots, and it's fun when Tom Waits' voice starts coming out of a saloon piano player. But by the time Joan Rivers shows up in animated form, the joke of the modern world invading the fairy-tale past has worn pretty thin. Cleese and Andrews rule over a kingdom that looks a lot like a storybook variation on Hollywood, and that gag, like the first film's Michael Eisner-baiting, will probably play better to Hollywood Reporter subscribers than to doll-toting kids. (Or most of the rest of the world, for that matter.)
The expansive vistas and expressive character design remain a wonder, but the story is never as impressive as the animation. Shrek 2 sustains Shrek's sweet tone, but it never joins that tone to real emotions. The lovable characters remain, but they never do much of interest in a sequel that's safely above average but superfluous.