Judge Bill Gibron didn't think it possible, but after seeing this slight CG cartoon, he's now convinced: Shrek 3 is not the worst animated film he's seen this year.
Fairytale Endings Aren't What They Used to Be…Like Good.
In the land of fairytales, a wizard (George Carlin, Dogma) and his animal-esque assistants Munk (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride) and Mambo (Andy Dick, Employee of the Month) make sure that the balance between good and evil is always maintained. It's their job to guarantee princes are united with princesses and that witches and trolls are defeated in the end. If something slips one way or the other, they bring the narrative scales back into alignment. But when Frieda (Sigourney Weaver, Aliens), the domineering stepmother of Cinderella (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), gets a hold of the magician's controlling plot wand, she sends the power over to the side of badness almost immediately. Soon, the villains of the kingdom are coming into their own. It will be up to thick-headed Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton, The Tick) and a lowly kitchen servant named Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr., Scooby-Doo) to save the day, lest they experience nothing but Happily N'Ever Afters from here on out.
Happily N'Ever After is not a bad movie; it's just a soulless and lifeless one. It takes an already tenuous premise (the Shrek-like comic deconstruction of fairy tale convention) and overloads it with obvious jokes, broad characterization, and the weakest of narrative conceits. Mocking Cinderella is like a stand-up comic cracking on airplane food; it's been done to death and never very well. Since the spoofing is forged at the expense of recognizability (we get only the smallest amount of the standard storybook material), the satire is forced and never very effective. Indeed, about the only entertaining aspect of this 3D downer is the nifty use of computer animation. Though many will find it blocky and excruciatingly non-Pixar, it works within the context—bringing the primary color pages of a children's tome to life. Still, when all is said and done, when the plot points are played out and the subtext has skittered to a halt, we are left with something so lightweight and superficial it barely makes an impression. In fact, you may find yourself confusing certain scenes and situations from this cartoon's two main inspirations—the no-longer-winning adventures of that Scottish spewing ogre and the unfairly rejected Hoodwinked.
Granted, the American distributors of this German jumble know what makes parents proud of the DVD sell-through purchases. There is no bad language here, no risqué humor, and no ultraviolent crudities. Heck, Happily N'Ever After even manages to keep the usually over the top and tasteless Andy Dick in check. The obvious gags will entrance the smallest of malformed baby brains and the bright pigments will keep the pre-schoolers mesmerized for days. The fairy tale villains are cut from the super safe and minor threat mandate, and they're usually portrayed as dumb rather than dangerous. About the only odd aspect of these otherwise cookie-cutter characters is the evil stepmother's massive chest. That's right, frightmare Frieda, the Empress of Evil herself, has a bosom that would make Jessica Rabbit jealous. Along with her flowing golden locks and her hourglass shape, she's as stacked as she's whacked. It's the same for a group of witches that also own rather pendulous personal floatation devices. There is truly no shortage of physical oddness here. Prince Charming is rendered like a pork butt with a cowlick, while Cinderella looks like a board with a basic bob. Granted, these pen-and-ink types fall well within Happily N'Ever After's design dynamic, but they are definitely as artificial as they are artistic.
As for the voice acting, no one really stands out. Sigourney Weaver's turn as Frieda is all fire and very little believable brimstone. She occasionally screams for lack of a better motivational reason. Dick does his best with some supposedly ironic lines, while Wallace Shawn seems to be channeling Porky Pig for his warthog wizard's assistant. George Carlin's cameo as the magic man is all about his craggy croak, while Patrick Warburton essays the literal interpretation of a meat head. You know you're reaching when a trio of bad-guy wolves (one for Red, the little pigs, and various anthropomorphized characters) are given a mafia/Sopranos makeover, complete with voice work from famed goombah Jon Polito. Only Sarah Michelle Gellar as a rather innocuous Cindy and her main man Freddie Prinze, Jr. manage to make something solid out of their incredibly vapid personas. In fact, Prinze brings more to the table than any five other actors combined. It's a shame it's in service of a tale so tall and tenuous that it can barely remain viable until the final credits. Again, Happily N'Ever After is not a full-blown failure. Wee ones will wet themselves over the constantly cavorting cartoon effigies. But adults may be mortified at how shallow and stale it all appears.
Offered by Lionsgate in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that's bright and cheerful, Happily N'Ever After looks very good on DVD. The contrasts between subtle and sharp, dark and light, are expertly maintained, and the animation is rendered consistently good all throughout the transfer. On the sound side, there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that makes excellent use of all the speakers. When the bad guys begin to congregate on the Prince's castle, or when Frieda is firing off magical spells from her enchanted staff, the speakers respond in waves of aural recognition. Like most kid-oriented releases, the added content is geared toward games, activities, and product interaction. From the very beginning, the menu asks the viewer to answer a question. How they respond leads them to a "good" or "evil" version of the disc choices (no real difference between the two, actually).
From there, we are provided with an audio commentary from director Paul Bolger, a selection of deleted scenes (including a so-called alternate ending), three featurettes, and a group of games for those in short pants. The activities can best be described as talky, difficult to navigate, and highly repetitive. Obviously, the manufacturers have a child's attention span and interest level down pat. As for the making-of material, we get lots of sketch to screen comparisons, story discussions, and insincere interviews from overly ebullient cast members. About the only interested bonus is the director's discussion. It is here where we learn the truth: Happily N'Ever After was meant to be darker and more satiric in tone. Obviously, somewhere between the brainstorming and the finished product, more than a few Hollywood hacks got their hands on this.
If you're sick and tired of the Dreamworks/Fox ideal of bitmap animation, if you're looking for an alternative to all the mediocre moviemaking geared toward families nowadays, Happily N'ever After will definitely not provide any major relief. It's a minor diversion, nothing more, guilty of far too many of the archetypal traps its fellow CG films fall into. You may not be bored, but you won't be waiting for the sequel afterwards.
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• Full-Length Audio Commentary by Director Paul Bolger
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