"Shrek 2" signals its underlying spirit - a fable both old-fashioned and postmodern - from the first scene.
Prince Charming is racing through blizzards and deserts to reach a distant tower and awaken the enchanted Princess Fiona with a kiss. He gets there, all right, but he's too late! She's already married Shrek, the gentle ogre who stole her heart in the last movie.
This amusing start sets the stage for the rest of the story. Fiona drags Shrek to her homeland for a get-together with her royal parents, who are duly shocked when they realize she's married a monster.
For a moment it appears the local fairy godmother may do a "Cinderella" number on Fiona, giving her beauty and riches Shrek can't bestow. But it turns out this winged wizardess is a self-centered capitalist, outraged that Charming has been bested, and willing to use all the power of FGM Inc. to oust the ogre and replace him with her (literally) fair-haired boy.
At its best, "Shrek 2" draws up a bright new blueprint for animated features aimed at all ages. Most of these appeal to children through frankly childish plots, appeasing adults by tossing in grown-up references. By contrast, the makers of "Shrek 2" have cooked up an unpredictable story, combining fairy-tale whimsy with social satire that actually has some edge to it.
Add an ingenious new character - the mercurial Puss-in-Boots, a swaggering feline with heart-melting eyes - and you have a movie destined for the same success its predecessor enjoyed.
Having said all this, I can't recommend "Shrek 2" without an ogre-sized caveat. For all its cleverness, the basic messages of the movie are trite: Be yourself and remember that true beauty lies within your caring heart. There's no arguing with these ideas, but we've heard them in zillions of other family films. That aside, "Shrek 2" is witty fun. The summer is off to a strong start.
• Rated PG; contains cartoon violence.