"Shrek the Third"

Talk about your middle-age spread.

For an ornery ogre, the big green guy known as Shrek is getting downright cuddly.

Too bad his latest movie, "Shrek the Third," is getting flabby around the middle.

This latest (and hardly greatest) installment in the fractured fairy tale franchise attempts to solve the problem of what to do for an encore by doing exactly the wrong thing: more of the same.

Comforting for the kiddies, to be sure, but not exactly overflowing with the spoofy wit the first delirious chapter delivered.

"Shrek the Third" can't even come up with a new character to rival "Shrek 2's" breakout star, the swashbuckling Puss in Boots. Fortunately, "Shrek the Third" reboots the fearless feline, enabling him (and his dashing vocal alter ego, Antonio Banderas) to steal the show once more.

Any swashbuckling pussycat worth his Fancy Feast needs a quest, of course. And one conveniently presents itself when Far Far Away's Frog King croaks -- but not before suggesting that Shrek (voiced, as usual, by Mike Myers) take over his kingly duties.

Shrek, however, has had enough of palace protocol and longs to return to his beloved swamp with his beloved Fiona (Cameron Diaz). So he sets off with pals Puss (Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) to find a logical replacement: Fiona's long-lost cousin Artie (voiced by Justin Timberlake), a dimpled would-be prince trying to survive high school hell in the saucy realm of Worcestershire.

Meanwhile, the jilted Prince Charming (a cranky, comical Rupert Everett), fresh from a less-than-stellar turn as a dinner-theater star, rounds up a host of storybook villains -- including the Evil Queen who sent Snow White to the forest, Pinocchio's wicked master Stromboli and, inevitably, that piratical rascal Captain Hook -- to take over the Far Far Away realm that should have been his in the first place.

Clever ideas all, if utterly predictable. Alas, writer-director Chris Miller (replacing Andrew Adamson, who's now working on the "Chronicles of Narnia" series) and screenwriters Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and Aron Warner seem to have a horror of trying anything new. That holds true whether they're transforming familiar fairy tale characters (from Cinderella's beefy stepsisters to a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty) or putting a contemporary spin on storybook settings. (That explains why Worcestershire resembles "The O.C.")

Even so, "Shrek the Third" does showcase some definite visual wit, whether it's the dense-pack detail of the various storybook settings or the contrast between the movie's eerily perfect humans and its more fanciful creatures.

But if the movie's underwhelming new personalities -- Artie and his spaced-out mentor Merlin (voiced by Eric Idle) -- are any example, it's probably just as well that "Shrek the Third" emphasizes its tried and true characters.

Developing them is another matter, however. Most of the time, "Shrek the Third" doesn't even bother, skipping from one light-hearted sequence to the next, providing ample opportunity for favorite characters to strut their stuff.

Except for rare, revealing moments, such as the one in which Shrek dreams of becoming a father -- a dream that turns into a nightmare, complete with multiple ogre babies wreaking havoc at home sweet hovel. (Too bad most audiences have never seen the cartoon that obviously inspired this standout sequence: 1932's "Mickey's Nightmare," in which Mickey Mouse dreams of a multitude of mischievous minimice menacing him.)

Shrek himself emerges as a kinder, gentler version of his previously irascible self, with Myers creating an appealing ogre who's more gentle and genial than gruff. Murphy, too, seems somewhat domesticated and relatively restrained, but he and Banderas (as you might expect) supply much of the most amusing repartee.

Amusing, that is, in the context of "Shrek the Third," which settles for triggering giggles when it should be generating guffaws.

Then again, it's tough to laugh uproariously at a joke we've heard before. Twice. So I guess it's lucky that, in "Shrek the Third," we can laugh at all.