Twenty years after its release, James Fisher explores just why Shrek is still so beloved, and memed, to this day.
When thinking of modern animation, you’d be forgiven for having the little Pixar lamp, Luxo Jr., pop in to your head. Although Pixar may be a mere branch in Disney’s long history of animation, they certainly rejuvenated the animation giants back to their best. Pixar’s first feature length release in 1995 changed the landscape of animation forever, with Toy Story kicking off a new era of computer generated animated films. This was now the way forward, so much so that the Academy Awards rewarded the film’s creators with a Special Achievement award, as well as a first ever Original Screenplay nomination for an animated film. Pixar were on a roll, producing films with positive critical and commercial values. Although competition was lacklustre, it didn’t take long for another major player to step up, and attempt to steal Disney’s animation thunder.
After breaking away from Disney, Jeffery Katzenberg founded what we know as DreamWorks Animation, releasing their first computer generated feature, Antz, in 1998. The film was critically successful, and proved that animated films don’t have to be quite as family-friendly as Disney had always made us believe. On the other hand, Pixar had massive success in 1999 with their first sequel, Toy Story 2. Bringing in just shy of $500 million at the box office, the loveable characters and world building that Disney films have always been known for were shining through.
This success highlighted a gaping hole in DreamWorks’ catalogue: they were lacking an IP worthy of becoming a franchise. While having their individual successes with Antz, The Prince of Egypt (1998) and a co-produced Chicken Run (2000), DreamWorks still lacked a truly marketable movie, one that would entertain children and adults alike. While the Toy Story series is a fantastic example of how to truly build a world from scratch—and keep it entertaining and profitable—it arguably lacks a little edge: something that makes an audience member of any kind burst out in to fits of laughter.
2001: An Ogre’s Odyssey
Enter 2001, the year that saw several future franchises release their first movie: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and of course, Shrek. The film that arrived in 2001 very nearly didn’t come to fruition. In 1998, the idea of Shrek, and what story the character would be part of was at the back of most peoples minds. Katzenberg bought the rights to adapt William Steig’s story of the green ogre several years prior, and slowly but surely, the film was imagined and developed in the background. After several failed attempts to find the ogre’s voice, the role eventually landed with Mike Myers, who wanted to make the character his own: bitter, boorish, and Scottish.
If Roger Ebert gives you four out of four stars, you must be doing something right. A brilliant mix of satire, and an emotionally all-round performance from Myers, helped turn Shrek from an ugly duckling to a golden goose. Ironically the moral of the story is incredibly Disney-esque, but yet the skin on show is a polar opposite. The film also challenges the role of the princess, questioning why it is that vanity and vulnerability are always defining factors. It made a bold statement, and laughed in the face of Disney’s traditional tales. Whether it be coincidence or not, Disney shelved the ‘princess theme’ for several years, and upon their return, the female figures were much more independent (Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), Frozen (2013) and so on).
The next big milestone achieved by Shrek is often used as a pub quiz question. In March 2002, Shrek won the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, an achievement often overlooked and forgotten. This again, comes down to a usual Disney/Pixar yearly win in the category. Ironically, the category itself was made because there were actually more than just Disney animations entering theatres, offering enough competition to make an award seem worthy. Similarly, seeing Shrek compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes was just an unexpectedly pleasant sight.
The greatest compliment that could be given, in hindsight, is just how much this film affected people. With an exceptionally talented cast, witty dialogue, state of the art animation and a booming soundtrack, cinema was introduced to something that it had never really seen before. People were laughing, but they were also applauding. Critics generally found the film charming, fresh, and playful. Yes, it was crude, but in a relatable way. Shrek hates everyone, and wants to be isolated forever, something that we can all relate to from time to time. His house is a mess, but that’s OK because that’s how he likes it. Donkey’s persistent annoyance is hilarious, because we probably all know someone just like that. Each fairy-tale character has their own unique personality, and they all tend to get on Shrek’s nerves.
The main take away is this: Shrek is a creature, a product of fantasy. He lives in a make believe world, surrounded by fantastical creatures and mythical beings. And yet, he doesn’t feel like the rest. He’s an outcast, automatically judged to be nothing but trouble. His defiance and persistence turns him into a hero, and he even finds love along the way. As a stand alone story, it was loved by kids, parents, critics, teens, and everyone in between. Ignoring sequels, Shrek was, and is, a film filled with love and laughter from start to finish.
A Lasting Legacy
Three more Shrek films were released over the next nine years: Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek The Third (2007), and Shrek Forever After (2010). The first two films have-long standing, positive critical receptions, but the latter two films didn’t seem to tick critics’ boxes. Of course, critical thought isn’t exactly what drives most movie-goers, and every Shrek sequel made at least $750 million: clearly someone was still interested. Why do people still love the green giant so much?
It’s thanks, in part, to the bizarre workings of the internet. In the years after Shrek Forever After, we started to see many fans missing the friendly swamp-dweller, taking it out in their creative outlets. Memes, ranging from bizarre to erotic, began to circulate: all focusing on Shrek in, shall we say, interesting situations. 2012’s viral video Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life left people laughing, crying and questioning. Seeing Shrek in the limelight, once again with an adult audience, was something that hadn’t really been seen since the quality of satire within the films had dropped off.
Shrek was no longer seen as a loveable kids character: he was back to his filthy, satirical origins. Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit “All Star”, which features in the original Shrek film, has had its fair share of memed content, to the point where it’s hard to separate the song and the film. The rise in computer animated technology throughout the 2010’s, in particular its accessibility, meant that amateur animators could make Shrek-based animations to their hearts desire, sticking him in any creepy environment they saw fit.
The magic and love of the first film is still being felt, even twenty years later. It stands alone as a pioneer, ending what was considered a monopolised market. The fact that films like Hoodwinked! (2005) and Chicken Little (2005) never quite hit the mark is damning proof of Shrek‘s brilliance, and that it was anything but a ‘kids film’. As I wish Shrek a happy birthday, I also recommend viewing it for yourself, even if it’s for the first time in twenty years, just to remind yourself of the magic.
Words by James Fisher
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