'Shrek 2' good this time

By CHRISTY LEMIRE

The Associated Press

Whatever was wrong with “Shrek” – and there were more weaknesses than its beloved status would suggest – has been eradicated or improved upon with “Shrek 2,” a rare example of a sequel that's better than the original.

The computer-generated animation, which dazzled the first time in 2001, looks even better. The backgrounds and landscapes are even more lush and detailed, from the realistic drops of water during a thunderstorm to the contours left in the snow after a horse-drawn carriage has rumbled through. The characters' movements are smoother, not as herky-jerky – especially those of Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) – all of which contributes to the sensation of watching something truly filmic, not digitally manufactured.

But the most important change of all, and the most fundamental, is in the screenplay. While the “Shrek” script consisted of little more than a litany of pop culture references, many of which already felt stale, “Shrek 2″ has a strong story line, with more fully developed characters.

Fun for kids and adults

The in-jokes that do exist here seem relevant, including a clever little reference to Justin Timberlake, Diaz's real-life beau. A send-up of “COPS” – called “KNIGHTS,” in keeping with the fairy-tale theme – is a fast-paced, dead-on riot. Other pop culture references – to movie musicals, Beverly Hills cliches and old Hollywood – seem classic and more likely to withstand the test of time, unlike those in the first “Shrek,” which included tired takeoffs on “The Matrix” and the Macarena.

These, of course, are intended to entertain the adults in the audience – and they'll succeed – but there's plenty to keep the kids happy, too. “Shrek 2,” like the first, is bright, light and colorful, with a nonstop energy that's infectious.

Several strong supporting characters and actors have been added to the already-solid lineup of returning vocal talent, led by Diaz, Mike Myers as the lovable ogre, Shrek, and Eddie Murphy as his perpetually perky sidekick, Donkey.

Meet the in-laws

Picking up right where the original left off, “Shrek 2″ begins with the newly married ogre couple returning from their honeymoon and receiving an invitation to visit Princess Fiona's parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews), who rule over the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Donkey tags along.

Upon first meeting the boorish Shrek, the in-laws don't exactly approve. While the queen eventually tries to be conciliatory, the king and Shrek get into a passive-aggressive shouting match over dinner in which they tear apart all the food on the table (and each other, almost).

Meanwhile, Fiona's fairy godmother (voiced decadently by Jennifer Saunders from “Absolutely Fabulous”) is astonished to learn that the princess has gotten married. Her son, the self-obsessed, blond-tressed Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), was supposed to have rescued Fiona from the tower and lived happily ever after with her – but he got there too late.

This brings us to the most fantastic addition of all to the “Shrek” series: Puss-in-Boots, a tabby cat decked out in tiny Zorro duds and voiced by Antonio Banderas, in a nod to his starring role in “The Mask of Zorro” in 1998.

Puss-in-Boots is sent to take out Shrek, which would make way for a fairy-tale ending for Fiona and Prince Charming. Instead, the kitty ends up warming to the big green guy and fighting on his side, even after Shrek has undergone a medieval version of “Extreme Makeover,” thinking that's what Fiona really wants in a husband.

The character alternates with catlike agility between sword-fighting bravado and saucer-eyed vulnerability, and Banderas plays him with a sexual ambiguity that adds a hilariously subversive layer of humor to the film. You could easily imagine him slashing and purring his way to his own movie.

The moral of the story – that love conquers all, despite appearances – is the same as the first movie. Even that element is conveyed with a lighter touch this time, something that seems unlikely in a film with three directors and about a half-dozen screenwriters.

“Shrek 2,” a DreamWorks release, was co-written and directed by Andrew Adamson (who also directed the first “Shrek”) and co-directed by Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon. It's rated PG for some crude humor, a brief substance reference and some suggestive content. Running time: 93 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.