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MOVIE REVIEW

Happily ever ogre

It gets off to a shaky start, but in the end, 'Shrek 2' proves the second time's a charm

Having no inherent reason to exist, second films must struggle to convince us otherwise. That said, I don't think I've ever seen a movie plunge so far over the cliff before pulling out of its nosedive and soaring into the air (motor spluttering) as "Shrek 2."

The new computer-animated green machine turns out to be a frenetic and very enjoyable 93 minutes at the movies for child and parent alike, but you watch the first half through your fingers. It has taken four writers and three directors -- not all the king's horses and all the king's men, but still -- to craft scenes of the lovable title ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) and his jolly green bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), arguing tearfully about whether to visit her parents. Later they argue tearfully about the hard compromises necessary to maintaining a marriage. Maybe I'm missing something here, but does DreamWorks really think we want to pay for something we can get at home for free?

Luckily, we've had hints by then of the fizzy, shallow, pun-strewn lunacy that eventually lifts "Shrek 2" to within sight of the original film. In the honeymoon montage that begins the film, there are references to "From Here To Eternity," "The Lord of The Rings," and "The Little Mermaid" -- more importantly, at least two of those three gags get a laugh.

But the story line remains the weakest and most forced part of "Shrek 2," and sometimes you pray for it to just get out of the way. Shrek and Fiona return to her home country of Far Far Away, where they are greeted with alarm because King Harold (John Cleese), Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews), and their subjects expected a human, un-

cursed Princess and a Prince who was, if not charming, then at least not flatulent. There's a real Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), though, a vain lunkhead cheesed at not getting the girl. And there's a Fairy Godmother who's not quite as helpful as the ones in the old stories -- but, then, she's voiced by Jennifer Saunders, the divine floozy of "Absolutely Fabulous." A fairyland CEO with itsy-bitsy wings, this Godmother suggests a power-mad Angela Lansbury, and if you missed the implied Disney bashing, the musical number that rips off, rips up, and merrily stomps on "Be Our Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast" should tip you off.

What works best in "Shrek 2" are the smaller roles, the pile-driving pop-culture jokes, and the moments of weird, early-Mad-magazine comic invention: Prince Charming wearing a paper Burger King crown in the background of a scene, for example. The CGI animation is painterly and sometimes breathtaking, but it lacks the easy brilliance of a Pixar film (so does the script), and the human characters have the ungainly plasticity of Barbie dolls. There's a reason "Toy Story" used toys.

There is one inspired new figure, though: Puss-in-Boots, voiced by Antonio Banderas as a sawed-off Castilian dandy who isn't above using Bambi eyes to get what he wants. Half Inigo Montoya, half Morris the finicky cat, Puss quickly joins our hero's side and what starts as a halfhearted Zorro knockoff has become a funny and welcome regular by the final scenes.

Eddie Murphy's Donkey also takes a while to find his legs, and when he does, they're the legs of a white stallion -- but I'll say no more. Shrek goes through some changes, too, and Myers thankfully keeps the character's vocal showboating to a minimum, as though karmically atoning for "The Cat in the Hat." But Diaz mostly mopes, and I'm not sure why one would hire a class act like Andrews and give her nothing to do. Even Cleese is surprisingly un-Cleese-like.

As in the first film, an inventive pop-rock soundtrack smoothes over the dull patches -- any movie that puts Tom Waits's "Little Drop of Poison" into the mouth of a barroom-piano-playing Captain Hook has more on its mind than product placement.

Eventually, Shrek's fairy-tale pals from the first film show up to lend a helping hand, and "Shrek 2" finally ascends into the comic stratosphere, with Pinocchio, the Gingerbread Man, and the Three Little Pigs all delivering solid guffaws that land on different parts of kids' and parents' brains.

You may be having such a fun time, in fact, that you don't notice it's taking characters from the first film to finally make the second one airborne. "Shrek 2" is just good enough to make you worry about the prospect of "Shrek 3." Get ready: It'll probably be called "Married With Gremlins."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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