-By Kevin Lally

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At times you may wonder if you're watching the CGI version of Meet the Parents, but Shrek 2 is an inventive and often very funny sequel to the Oscar-winning animated blockbuster that made the world embrace ill-mannered ogres. The marital trials of the title character and his new bride may not be as novel and refreshing as the 2001 original, but there's no shortage of energy and visual creativity here, along with some delightful new players guaranteed to make DreamWorks Animation's latest effort a box-office behemoth.

The screenplay by Andrew Adamson, Joe Stillman, J. David Stem and David N. Weiss picks up where the first film left off, with the honeymoon of swamp ogre Shrek and his onetime beautiful wife, Princess Fiona, whose nighttime ogre curse has become her permanent fate. On their return, the couple is summoned to a royal ball in Far Far Away, the land of her parents; unfortunately, the King and Queen have no idea that their daughter's "Prince Charming" is green and grotesque, and that their precious girl is no longer a looker.

Shrek's intervention certainly botches the plans of the real Prince Charming, who arrived on the rescue scene too late, and especially ruffles the wings of his mother, the magical but megalomaniacal Fairy Godmother. With the bitterly disappointed King as part of the conspiracy, Fairy Godmother plots to eliminate Shrek and restore her vain, handsome son to his rightful place in the royal dynasty.

From the opening credits montage of the ogres' honeymoon (complete with a From Here to Eternity homage for us older folk), Shrek 2 keeps the gags flowing. But the writers dilute the purity of the original's fairy-tale sendup by adding more contemporary references that have little to do with vintage children's literature--nods to the Star Wars cantina, the giant Sta-Puf man from Ghostbusters, even a faux-video takeoff on "Cops" called "Knights" (with a peppermill instead of pepper spray). And the L.A. look of Far Far Away (with shops like "Barneys Old York" and "Farbucks") is more canny product placement than clever humor. The overabundance of pop songs on the soundtrack also represents more of a marketing ploy than a real asset.

Fortunately, Shrek 2 augments its original star players with some new characters who are downright irresistible. Antonio Banderas, brushing up for his Zorro sequel, is hilarious as the swashbuckling Puss In Boots, a Hispanic feline mercenary hired to dispose of Shrek but who quickly becomes the ogre's ally. The contrast between his smooth Latin bravado and his obvious limitations, like coughing up a hairball in the heat of battle, is lots of fun, and cat lovers especially will adore this new Shrek sidekick. Stealing the rest of the show is Jennifer Saunders, bringing her "Absolutely Fabulous" haughtiness and wicked wit to the role of the scheming Fairy Godmother, whose matronly look hides an evil agenda. Another fine addition to the cast is John Cleese as the hapless King, in thrall to the Fairy Godmother for reasons that are revealed in the final moments. Julie Andrews, however, is given little to do but tap into her sweet persona as the compassionate Queen.

As Shrek, Mike Myers has less comic material this time out, but he makes the perfect exasperated straight man to Eddie Murphy's irrepressible Donkey, who complains there's only room for one "annoying talking animal" when Puss In Boots joins their crew. With all the new cast members, Cameron Diaz has few standout moments as the devoted Princess Fiona.

Visually, Shrek 2 is even denser than the original, with sharp background details that really pop from the screen. Traditional animation still retains the edge in movement and facial expressiveness, but CGI sets the bar when it comes to spectacle. That visual richness, combined with star power, nonstop gags and endearing characters, guarantees a huge splash for the movies' favorite swamp creature.

-Kevin Lally

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