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Ogre Easy 

The most absurd thing about this fast and funny sequel to Shrek -- which was released three years ago this weekend -- is the fact that talk show host Larry King provides the deep, gruff voice for the bartending Ugly Stepsister.

The best thing about it is a combination of spirited voice performances from all (except an unusually flat one from Julie Andrews as the queen) and a smooth continuation of anarchic storytelling that left off with swamp ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) marrying Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) who had just come to terms with both her and Shrek's odd looks (ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside).

That little tidbit of information -- about the unimportance of looks -- is all that's necessary to know about the first film in order to enjoy this one. But since everyone in the Western hemisphere saw Shrek, the point is moot. Still, there's a very big difference between the two films, and it does have to do with looks: The technology of computer animation has made such leaps in the past few years, the sequel absolutely blows away the then-groundbreaking physical presentation of the first one.

That said, the only slightly negative thing about the sequel is that the freshness that caught so many viewers off guard the first time is missing. That, of course, is the problem inherent with sequels. And the film is involving and creative enough to overcome the problem almost as soon as it's apparent.

This one starts with a smooth segue between films -- the arrival of Prince Charming to Fiona's castle, with rescue in mind. But the vain fellow is too late; she's already off on her honeymoon with Shrek, Kodak moments of which fly hilariously across the screen.

But the happy, carefree mood is soon shattered when, in a scene that hints of early marital strife, Fiona tells Shrek that they must journey to the kingdom of Far Far Away to attend a royal ball in their honor and... gulp!... he has to meet the parents.

So with chatterbox Donkey (Eddie Murphy) along for the ride in a garlic coach, they set off, unprepared for the reaction they'll get. Not as unprepared as the king and queen are, though not only for what their new son-in-law looks like, but also what their daughter has become.

Things don't go well. John Cleese, in an outstanding performance as the king, likes nothing about Shrek, and Shrek reciprocates. Fiona and her mom aren't at all happy about the situation. Enter the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders from Absolutely Fabulous), who says she can fix everything.

Ah, but there's a backstory. It seems that the king had earlier entered into an agreement with the Fairy Godmother that was supposed to result in her son -- Prince Charming -- breaking the spell on Fiona and marrying her. That was the deal, she insists, and now she's not all happy and glowing. And the king, she threatens, had better make things right.

And here is where the film really begins its merry, twisted way. The king, in disguise, visits a disreputable bar and hires would-be assassin Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas in full ham mode) to take care of business.

Aside from the motormouth Donkey, the Fairy Godmother gets most of the choice lines of dialogue. And near the end, there are all kinds of changes of heart, most noticeably with the king, but first he must come to his senses about his daughter's happiness.

As in the original film, there's plenty of product placement scattered around, all of it slightly askew. And there's some kind of visual treat in practically every corner of the screen. It's too bad that, like its predecessor, which ended with a dated and out-of-place version of "I'm a Believer," this one ends with "Living La Vida Loca," another song that's well past its prime. But anyone staying through the credits will be rewarded for enduring cheesy musical numbers with a sweet add-on scene at the very end.

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