'Shrek the Third' settles for one too many cliches.

The third installment in the hit comedy series makes leaps in animation, but not in plot.

The law of diminishing returns is no more apparent than in the movie world. A sequel, with rare exceptions, is worse than the film it follows, and sequels of sequels fare even worse.

Such is the case with "Shrek the Third." As a big fan of the first "Shrek," I was let down by "Shrek 2," which seemed pitched less to children than to smart-alecky adults. The film was a commercial hit anyway.

It's likely that "Shrek the Third" will be a hit, too, although the children in the audience for my press screening didn't exactly look as if they were having the time of their lives. It may not matter – the "Shrek" brand is so pervasive that the quality of the films has become secondary to their success. They are triumphs of merchandising, not imagination.

In "Shrek the Third," the green ogre is in line to become king of Far Far Away. Since this is the last thing he wants, he sets out with Donkey and Puss In Boots to find the only other heir to the throne – Artie, the long-lost cousin of Shrek's pregnant wife, Fiona.

With a mixture of new songs and oldies (including Wings' "Live and Let Die"), "Shrek the Third" tries to create an aural environment that will go down well with both kids and adults. The in-joke pop culture references are almost as abundant as they were in "Shrek 2," and are not much better. (The sign for the kingdom of Far Far Away is a duplicate of the "Hollywood" sign in Los Angeles, and so on).

Maybe the filmmakers needed to insert these gags in order to stay sane, but what about the rest of us?

There's another problem here. In the first "Shrek," the life lessons were kept to a minimum. In "Shrek 2," the green one became touchy-feely and his relationship to Fiona was gooey. In the new film, Shrek has to learn to believe in himself.

It's not that I object to animated characters having human dimensions. It's just that the soporific uplift provided by the last two "Shrek" movies is just as banal as in any old live-action Hollywood drama. The imaginative leaps in the animation are dragged down by the deadweight storytelling. While it's true that, from a technical standpoint, the "Shrek" movies continue to improve, it's also true that technique isn't everything. Where's the victory in showing off a new and improved green skin tone or a more detailed blade of grass if the production itself is blurry with the same old clichés?

Grade: C+

Rated PG for some crude humor and suggestive content.

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