While I agree with the many critical assertions that the third "Shrek" film is a blatant cash-in to capitalize on the massive success of the previous two films, the journalistic critical community's overwhelming reliance on this is evidence of the many problems with film criticism. In short, this criticism (if it can be called that) is a cop-out. I'm not saying that one cannot take a political/media economy approach to film criticism. But relying on it to explain a film's flaws while neglecting to offer sound reasoning is precisely the reverse of what criticism is - or should be - about.
This is just one example of what is essentially an expression of opinion. Qualifications for film criticism in journalistic circuit require an individual who knows a little something about the movie industry, can conjure a few clever puns, and structure a short essay. This is how many readers perceive film criticism, and it's hard to blame them given the prominence of such "criticism." Anyone can express her or his opinion about a film - that's not difficult. But to articulate an argument and defend it elevates opinion into criticism. (Furthermore, this approach to criticism and its content fundamentally misunderstands the importance of the medium itself.)
Unfortunately, our news media culture tends to prize expression of opinion over intelligent criticism: keep it short, keep it sweet, and don't bother providing a reasoning for your argument - just throw your conclusions out there. This is the cultural attitude towards most issues involving politics, art, etc., and unfortunately many film critics perpetuate it. Rather than asking questions of a movie, observing details, engaging in thoughtful commentary, and piecing together an argument based on knowledge of the medium, they lay down the "answers," or opinions often based on nothing. A film is too much of one thing, not enough of another. [For those who haven't read this absolutely essential piece on criticism by David Bordwell, he outlines the problem with criticism far more efficiently than me. If you have read it before, read it again.]
Not all critics are guilty of this. In fact, there are many wonderful critics in the journalistic circuit. For example, on the topic of Shrek the Third, A.O. Scott's review, while brief (as most journalistic criticism demands), raises many thinking points about the nature of the film's underpinnings and, interestingly, a subtle commentary on these very issues of opinion and criticism as manifest in American popular cinema. An excerpt:
"Expressing a sometimes explicit animus against the Disney versions of well-known European folk tales, the franchise set out from the start to scramble the traditional polarities of good and evil, setting itself up as a more sophisticated, knowing brand of pop-culture magic. But those old stories — and those classic Disney movies — were almost more complicated than the parodies allowed. Their eerie subtexts and haunting ambiguities have always been more crucial to their power and appeal than the overt lessons they teach. “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” and “Shrek the Third,” by contrast, are flat and simple, hectic and amusing without being especially thrilling or complex. Their naughty insouciance makes their inevitable lapses into sentimental moralism all the more glaring."
Focusing on the supposedly witty references to previous narrative styles and elements, Scott exposes a facade permeating much of pop entertainment and pop criticism. This parodic approach to comedy and satire is typical of many digitally animated films and a surprising amount of television shows. Although these clever references appear to be satirical and sharp in their commentary, they exemplify the cultural trend of favoring quick-witted opinion over real critiques. And how fitting that one who understands criticism and its purpose - A.O. Scott - point this out. The "Shrek" films are most guilty of this; they appear to jab at fairy tales and Disney, yet they themselves very much follow the same pattern of moralism and syrupy endings. As Scott says, the referenced narratives are typically far more interesting than the film referencing them. But because contemporary films seem to be only what consumers are interested in, no real knowledge of these past stories exists outside these references.
Movies are not "texts" in the same way that a languaged argument is, and therefore cannot build arguments as an essay might. But they are capable of offering commentaries of a different variety - through narrative structure and visual style, juxtaposing different familiar elements and achieving new images through reflexivity, in a broad sense. This, I feel, is essential in storytelling, cinema, and communication; not empty referencing, but more subtle variations on styles and structural patterns. True reflexivity builds upon an idea and is more aware of the details of what it is reflexive upon, unlike the flat commentaries offered by the "Shrek" films and countless other pop-reflexive narratives. In these films and other pop narratives, real commentary or criticism is lost somewhere amidst the self-aware, endless referencing. These narratives may appear consciously rejecting the often shallowly interpreted and understood traditions of more traditional narrative, yet are unconsciously reliant on them to exist all. Pop-reflexive cinema is nothing more than an uninformed expression of opinion. (And opinion without reasoning or knowledge is not much of anything at all, as anyone who has ever seen or read Ann Coulter knows.) Unfortunately, this defines much of critical discourse in our media culture. With its championing of empty opinions and content over form, it is a criticism deserving of the pop-discourse it perpetuates.