I’m glad I didn’t see Shrek 2 in the theaters: it’s a good video, but had I gone out and paid money to see it, I would have been a very unhappy camper. The few parts of the movie that aren’t pop-culture references are flimsy, tired stock gags and plot devices. The characters are flat, the pacing leaden, the ending cliched. Can someone explain to me what the big deal about this movie is supposed to be?

Ok, I know what the big deal is supposed to be, and to be sure, no one loves a good pop-culture reference more than me. The problem isn’t that they make lots of allusions to other movies, TV shows, songs, etc.; the problem is that those allusions don’t do anything, don’t mean anything. What does it mean that the trumpeters play the Hawaii 5-0 theme? Why does the Fairy Godmother stop for a “Medieval Meal” at Friar’s Fat Boy while threatening the King? There is no reason, other than that they had already thought up the gag and needed to find a spot in the script to fit it in.

If the writers had been a little smarter about things, they could have made a movie that played with the idea of mythic and fairy tale narratives as building blocks for language, a story built out of stories, which I thought was supposed to be the idea behind Shrek in the first place. It might have ended up something like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” but less pedantic and more fun. Unfortunately, for every allusion that signifies, there’s one that makes no sense at all; for every crestfallen utterance of “I hate Mondays” that succinctly expresses despair in the face of inexorable bad fortune, there’s a giant Gingerbread Man attacking a Starbucks that spends a lot of time expressing nothing at all.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching it; I giggled all the way through. Nearly every actor whose initials weren’t M.M. or C.D. gave an enjoyable performance; Jennifer Saunders in particular was a show-stealer as the facile, vampy Fairy Godmother. And semiological quibbles aside, most of the gags really were pretty funny. Here’s the thing, though: they were funny in the way Pop-Up Videos or I Love the 80s are funny; that is to say, you don’t laugh because the joke is particularly funny, but simply because you get the joke. That’s a good way to kill a slow afternoon, but it’s no way to make a movie.