In case you hadn't noticed, what makes animated films work is not the animation but the writing. Check out "South Park" and "The Simpsons" if you don't believe me. Or "Toy Story 2" or, to get right down to it, "Shrek." Wonderful writing in all of them, so good that whatever the quality of the animation (brilliant in the films, hardly there in the television shows) the films speak to us through their scripts.
But writers are put under a great strain when they're asked to write sequels, because studios are desperate to cash in on the success of the originals. Think about it: here they've expended their creative energy on the original script, and now they're being asked to do it all again, to keep it the same, only different this time. Well, thanks. Occasionally the sequel will be better than the original, as "Toy Story 2" was better than "Toy Story," but for the most part all we can hope for is that the second film won't be too much of a letdown from the first.
Which brings us to "Shrek 2," which though it necessarily lacks the originality of "Shrek," has enough wit and invention to keep us interested and even amused. Shrek and Fiona (voiced by Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz) are married now, and get an invitation to visit her parents, the king and queen of Far Far Away land. But the king (John Cleese) has a hidden agenda. He is in league with the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders from Ab Fab), who has a son, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) who she thinks by rights should be Fiona's husband and inherit the kingdom. The story takes us through the making and unmaking of the various plots and counterplots that everyone is involved in.
Eddie Murphy as the donkey is back, and his endless riffs are just as good as they were in the original. The writers have added a wonderful new character, Puss in Boots (marvelously voiced by Antonio Banderas in full Zorro mode), who becomes an ally to the good guys. Even the Gingerbread Man has a literally big role to play, in a scene right out of "The Princess Bride." The film is full of homages to other movies and cultural icons. The land of Far Far Away is unnervingly like Los Angeles, even to the gigantic sign on the hillside announcing its name. And Rodeo Drive has never looked so good. As in the first film the incidental jokes, put in for the benefit of the adults in the audience, are sharp and to the point. Even better, there are some new songs - that is, covers of great old songs like David Bowie's "Changes" - that are used in context and work brilliantly.
A couple of caveats: Saunders, as the Fairy Godmother, doesn't have enough personality in her lines to be the wickedly vicious villain we want her to be. And Cleese's character is underwritten; he's too much of a milquetoast for Cleese to take advantage of his role. But the film is not a disappointment, which is all we can ask.