After unleashing his gooey inner child in Shrek 2, it’s hard to imagine the titular, lovable, slug-eating lug knocking out knights with chairs, outrunning balls of flame and battling dragons.

Shrek did all those in his first film appearance, at least part of the time. In an animation world where the sugar-high frenzy of Pixar films is the standard, something had to get children and parents in the door for the sedate but still sweet third-act comedown.

The message of Shrek (be happy with who you are, who you love and who loves you), though, seemed suited more to constant emotion than constant motion. There are threats of traditional sequel overkill in Shrek 2 — several spoofs go poof and there are more new characters than the film can reasonably handle.

Still, Shrek 2 is flashy, funny and irreverent, balanced with a keen understanding of its lead characters that makes it more than just franchised eye-candy.

The film sends newlywed Shrek (Mike Myers, believe it or not the movie’s vocal straight man) to the kingdom of Far, Far Away to meet his in-laws King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews).

Given they don’t know he’s an ogre, he correctly dubs it a bad idea, though he grudgingly makes the trip with loving bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and third-wheel friend Donkey (Eddie Murphy, still giving his best performances in years as an animated ass). And it’s not the welcome Harold was expecting to extend, given his side deal with Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) to pair off Fiona with her pretty-boy son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett).

To give up many more of the goods would be to ruin some of Shrek 2‘s pleasurable surprises and story twists. Harold’s way of dealing with the problem, though, introduces the wonderful new character of Puss in Boots.

Antonio Banderas gives the sassy cat voice in one of the most gleefully self-deprecating works any actor has ever done, taking potshots both at his Zorro role and his own overcooked Latino shtick. But short of setting plots in motion, and lending British voices to a very American-humored production, Andrews, Cleese, Everett and, to a lesser degree, Saunders are wasted.

So are the prologue visual pokes at The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man and another jab at songs in Disney movies. First of all, Disney characters don’t even break into song anymore and it stops this movie cold when it happens.

They don’t completely ruin, though, what is perfectly pitched about the rest of the film. There is non sequitur voice talent (Larry King and Tom Waits in the same film?). The sassy modern-day Hollywood parallels of Far, Far Away are blink-and-miss-them gems. The comedic chaos of the third act mocks and pays tribute to Godzilla and Ghostbusters. Newer themes of sacrifices for love are nicely handled. The one final joke over the end credits is priceless.

And, last but not least, there’s the Gingerbread Man, abused in the original but getting huge retribution here. Be sure to catch him in the funniest sight gag of the year so far, a priceless dig at the proliferation of Starbucks.