If you hopped on Twitter as of late, you might see a flurry of opinions about the 2001 DreamWorks film Shrek flying about on its 20th anniversary, with a number of them being quite defensive of their love of the big smelly ogre.
Part of that is probably due to this Guardian article by Scott Tobias, written for the anniversary. It’s a pretty harsh breakdown of the film and ensuing cultural zeitgiest, with a definite “what the hell were we smoking in 2001” perspective on the film. It holds no punches, lambasting the toilet humor (literally), CG animation, and stunt casting that it became (infamous) for. And, as customary for anniversary pieces, the apparently dismal effects it left on the genre and the medium for far too long, and questions why it still holds so much sway. It is not a piece that fans of Shrek would… appreciate. And they have said as much.
In case you were wondering, Tobias does appear to have a sense of humor about the reception of the piece:
Whew. It is… quite a bit to take in. And to be honest, I can’t really disagree with most (!) of the criticisms in the piece. The animation is pretty stiff. It does have a ton of meta jokes and pop culture takes that were overdone even two years later, let alone 20. It does end up wasting the potential of its ersatz world-building for quick jokes (the sequels try to build off of this more, to varying degrees of success). And yes, that “Hallelujah” needle drop was ridiculous even before Watchmen accidentally lampshades how misused it was in popular cinema.
It is indeed a very 2001 CG animated film, for all its faults. And that is indeed the point of the Guardian article. It’s an old film that people loved despite itself, but it certainly didn’t age all that great.
And yet, that’s really not the reason why people still love it. It became a fountain of memes and sh!tposting material and even YouTube deep dives, two entire decades later. Beyond the toilet humor, beyond the anti-Disney motivations, beyond the aged “Riverdance” reference, it is a story about accepting love, from others and yourself, even when the world tells you don’t deserve it. It’s a story about how corporate interests try to erase the “ugly” things to be more generally appealing, and how the “ugly” things are more beautiful for their uniqueness than any conformity will allow. And yes, it’s a story about an ogre starting the day by flushing his outhouse, then slamming open the door to the familiar strains of “Somebody once told me…”
You can easily see where the Shrek DNA splits into both the celebrity-stuffed, but thematically wanting misfires like Shark Tale (sorry, Tori!), Bee Movie, and Over The Hedge to the much stronger and more coherent takes on the same “outsider pushes against their society’s perception of them” theme in Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, and Megamind (where more “middle path” but extremely popular fare like Madagascar, The Croods and Trolls falls is up to you). And that’s just if we just limit ourselves to DreamWorks’ output.
By becoming such a big hit and influential film, Shrek showed that it was worth it for studios to invest in (U.S.) animation projects outside of the House of Mouse. Shrek showed that there was room for mass market CG animation that wasn’t Disney or Pixar; a line can be drawn to the eventual rise of competing studios like Illumination and Blue Sky. The irony of the Guardian piece comparing the admittedly outdated stiff and plastic-looking animation of Shrek to more recent attempts to push the media forward like the Lego Movie series and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is that you probably wouldn’t have the latter without the former and its flushing outhouse at some point.
Shrek is both a film that has not generally aged that well over 20 years, and also has earned its position of importance and influence. A movie primarily shaped by one billionaire wanting to spite some other billionaires became a key piece of animation history anyway.
Besides, I cannot help but smile at the realization that for all the money he spent on stuff like Quibi, the biggest impact on art, media, and pop culture Jeffery Katzenberg ever successfully managed to bring forth… was Shrek.
If by this point you tire of my ramblings and want to read more well thought out pieces on Shrek and its legacy than this one, two of Pajiba’s own have you covered: Kayleigh Donaldson writes about how Myers’ spontaneous choice to use a Scottish accent for the character led to an interesting reception of the film in her homeland. And Kristy Pushko was interviewed about why Shrek has had such a major impact on its fans.
Happy 20th Anniversary, Shrek!
Header Image Source: Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images