Double Take is a series in which Anna Swanson and Meg Shields sit down and yell at each other about the controversial, uncomfortable, and contentious corners of cinema. In this edition, they consider the cultural impact and enduring notoriety of Shrek.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, a Scottish ogre was unleashed upon the world and changed the face of animation as we know it. In 2001, DreamWorks released the fruit of their animosity-tinged labor and created a millennial childhood classic. But how well does Shrek (and its three theatrical sequels) hold up against examination today, twenty years later? Why is it so rife for meme-ification? How in the hell did this film get into Cannes (and why did they not award it the Palme d’Ogre)? These are the questions we sat down to explore.
With the help of the books The Men Who Would Be King and DIsneyWar guiding our knowledge of the bitter rivalry between DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-Disney chief Michael Eisner, we unpacked Shrek’s creation and legacy. But first, a reminder of what goes down in the four Shrek films:
- Shrek (2001) introduces us to our titular foul-mouthed antihero, who sets out on a quest to retrieve a princess so that he can get some peace and quiet in his swamp. But talking donkeys, magical curses, and true love complicate the matter.
- Shrek 2 (2004) drops the ogre and his new bride into a fairytale version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? With a cavalcade of supporting players and a new magical kingdom to explore, Shrek’s introduction to his in-laws is derailed by a conspiring Fairy Godmother and her himbo son.
- Shrek the Third (2007) follows our aging hero’s attempt to avoid a coup after inheriting his father-in-law’s throne. While Prince Charming aims to overthrow the royal ogres, Shrek seeks out Fiona’s cousin Artie to take over his reign instead.
- Shrek Forever After (2010) currently caps off the franchise with a spin on It’s A Wonderful Life that sees Shrek tricked into signing away his life when all he wanted was a one-day vacation from being an overworked dad. With his past, present, and future at stake, Shrek has to find Fiona and woo her once again, before it’s too late.
Now that we’re all up to speed, let’s cannonball into the swamp:
Anna Swanson: I think one place to start is the question of why our generation loves Shrek.
Meg Shields: We’re born in the same year and have identical experiences with this film. We were the target audience. Like: children who were old enough to have a working understanding of Disney while not being jaded enough to not still enjoy the farts.
AS: It is a movie explicitly made for its target audience to not get all the jokes.
MS: When Jeffrey Katzenberg worked at Disney, one of the things he really wanted to do was make a movie that would appeal equally to adults and children. He never really accomplished that until he left and Shrek happened.
AS: I believe that.
MS: I think it also appealed to children because it felt a little naughty. Like, the other word that Katzenberg honed in on was “edgy.” And as we all know, when you explicitly set out to make an edgy thing, there’s a very slippery slope.
AS: I am going to become the Shrek.
MS: Shrek has ultimately found ways to adapt and stay relevant as a series, particularly through its meme-ification online. But in isolation, the first film is starting to show its age, in large part because the very fiber of its being is so topical. Shrek‘s power lies in its being this highly specific technical, cultural, and historical object. All of which has to do with the kind of upstart ethos DreamWorks SKG had of reinventing the wheel and upping the game of what animation could do. All while being Katzenberg’s very explicit and public fuck you to his ex-Disney boss Michael Eisner.
MS: So there are two things we need to unpack, the first being: in a vacuum, gasping for air, will Shrek survive?
AS: I’m just imagining you throwing Shrek overboard, in a plastic bag, like … “Will he survive? Will he float?”
MS: The second question is where do we find value in Shrek today. And I would argue that the value is found not on the actual planet, but on the contextual moons orbiting around it.
AS: Ok, I follow your metaphor.
MS: We can begin with Shrek in isolation.
AS: This is also how the movie begins.
MS: Right: the outhouse door slam heard across Hollywood. I was rereading Nicole LaPorte’s The Men Who Would Be King, which paints a wonderfully bananas portrait of the year Shrek went to Cannes as a Palme d’Or contender. In an attempt to appear less pretentious, in 2001, Cannes brought in films like Shrek, Mulholland Drive, and Moulin Rouge!. And you have to imagine it — it’s in the big theater in Cannes, everyone is wearing borrowed jewelry and tuxes, and then Shrek starts.
AS: I’m imagining the opening scene of Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, but it’s Shrek that is is playing.
MS: Yeah, I mean, I think this is especially true of our generation, but the beginning of Shrek is seared into my brain. And I can’t reconcile the mud-shaped letters, the immediate fart joke, and “All Star” with the hoity-toity self-seriousness of Cannes. I’m just imagining this Cannes audience trying to make sense of everything. Apparently, no one laughed at first, and then slowly started to warm up to it. And then it got a standing ovation, which is the most Cannes thing.
AS: Yeah, speaking of that brain-searing, I could watch the first Shrek on mute and still hear every needle drop, every line of dialogue, every sound effect.
MS: So, unrelated to this anniversary, we watched all the Shreks. For no reason other than that we are in a pandemic. And watching that first movie felt like playing a piece of music that I know by heart. The cadence of things, the beats of jokes, it all came back. No matter how much I can look at Shrek from a distance, fundamentally there is a part of my brain where Shrek lives.
AS: And when we were watching it, we definitely talked about who this was for. Because yes, people loved it, but you still get the sense that no one expected Shrek to become a multi-film franchise hit. Personally, I was also a part of a niche target audience of “children who love Mike Myers.”
MS: Specifically because of So I Married an Axe Murderer.
AS: Yeah, a normal favorite movie to have as a kid.
MS: Well, they recorded (and animated) a significant amount of Shrek before Myers, in his infinite wisdom, decided he wanted to do a Scottish accent. And Katzenberg supposedly just kind of broke down and was just like, “fine.” In the end, Myers had the right instinct. It works, somehow.
Going back to your point of “who is Shrek for?” DreamWorks is a company founded on this need to prove something, creatively, technologically, you name it. Shrek was one of these “big ambitious ideas” and it was in development for a very long time. One of my favorite cursed facts about Shrek is that when they were dreaming up the film, they hired a gaggle of nerds, known as the Propellerheads, one of whom was J.J. Abrams. That initial attempt ultimately wasn’t a success. In the end, they found Shrek‘s guiding vision: this kind of brass, irreverent, cynical attitude towards fairy tales and the existing state of feature animation itself. I think it’s too early to say, but I’ll be fascinated to see if young children are still watching Shrek in twenty years. I’ll be curious to see if its topical charms have an expiration date.
AS: Yeah, I’m inclined to say that it helps to have a personal attachment to Shrek that comes from growing up with it.
MS: It has a very early 2000s sense of humor that puts it in a specific time and place.
AS: The gross-out humor feels very distinct.
MS: What was the last animated movie to go up for an Oscar with this many fart jokes? When Shrek came out it was the first year with a Best Animated Film category. Shrek was nominated. It was up against Pixar, which Dinsey would purchase five years later. Shrek won. This film saved DreamWorks, creatively and financially. And it’s hard to overestimate Shrek‘s lasting effect on animation. That taunting eyebrow-cocked look, this desire to appeal to the adults in the room, the pop culture references, the modern soundtrack — all of that is Shrek. As much as we can disparage it for being outdated, its ghost will haunt animation for a very long time.
AS: In terms of both the content and the style, I think even if it wasn’t the first to do all the things it does, it feels like the pivotal point of setting the standard.
MS: What Shrek did that was groundbreaking is in the late ’90s to early 2000s, any time anyone did anything in computer-generated animation, they were inventing computer-generated animation. Just to give an example, Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace, which came out two years before Shrek, doesn’t get enough credit for inventing motion capture and integrating fully CGI characters into live-action. What Shrek did that was revolutionary is animate human CGI characters. Even though he’s an ogre, compared to Jar Jar Binks, Shrek’s far more human. And animators had to avoid the uncanny valley as much as possible. They really deserve credit for that. Sure, the background characters look a little strange, but the main characters work. The animators had to basically create puppets that had digital muscles so that when they puppeteered the rigs, they would get creases and wrinkles; all of these subtle effects we now take for granted. Animating human CGI characters, to this extent, off reference footage from voice actors, hadn’t been done on this scale. Criticize the film as much as you want, but in terms of CGI animation, Shrek’s importance in animation history is incontestable. Children might not watch Shrek in twenty years. But people interested in the history of filmmaking will have no choice but to talk about it.
AS: What’s interesting, in terms of how the film will age, is how this first film relates to the broader franchise. I think we’re both in agreement that the second movie is probably the best one.
MS: Going from the first to the second, there are obvious leaps in both DreamWorks’ creative vision and the technology they were working with.
AS: In Shrek 2, they could still maintain the tone of the first one. It hasn’t become trying, and it still works. And the technology has improved. That, to me, puts it at the peak. And the third one shows that there’s a real decline in how much this tone can sustain the film.
MS: This is an interesting argument you’re making. That this idea of topical cheekiness having diminishing returns plays out in the franchise itself. That Shrek‘s millennial ‘tude is at its most powerful in the first film, refined in the second film, and by the third, they’ve run out of gas. Whatever ire and spunk were powering that car has lost its edge and revealed there isn’t a lot left when you take that away.
AS: I think things pick up on the Shrek slope with the fourth film. But I want to bracket it off from the first three because it’s not working with the same schtick. Which I think is good. I think it necessarily pivots to something more earnest, but that also means that it feels disconnected from the first three. It’s a double-edged sword.
MS: Couldn’t agree more. The fourth is actually, I would argue, pretty good!
AS: I think it’s more willing to bend the notion of what Shrek can be.
MS: I don’t think people really cared about Shrek Forever After when it came out. Which is unfortunate because I think it proves that there is something there in terms of the longevity of the Shrek story that’s more than cultural references and animosity.
AS: I’m tempted to say that I think I agree with that. But I also wouldn’t want that “turn” to have pivoted into more films that explore that idea. I think it worked to give us something new and cap off the franchise. But I don’t know if that alone could sustain another three films.
MS: I agree. If anything, it’s just a nice redemption arc. Like, the macro narrative of Shrek is about becoming an adult, this bachelor who gets married and starts a family only to tire of suburban life and long for the good old days. It’s about domesticity and settling down. And I think that’s mirrored nicely by the overarching creative trajectory of the franchise: this juvenile vitriol tamed into “I just want to talk about how I love my wife.” It’s sweet: that this thing born of cynicism can find its way back to storytelling that isn’t completely fuelled by being pissed off at Michael Eisner.
Just to jump back a bit: I do think that Shrek’s legacy, in terms of weaving pop culture references into animated films, was overall a net negative. It’s not enough to support a story. And if we back up even further, it means that your film is locked into a very specific time period, which has its drawbacks.
AS: In a way, I’m kind of tempted to say that that’s kind of how it had to be. Like I don’t know if Shrek would be as interesting of a cultural touchstone without all that metatextuality. Like if it were more timeless, I don’t think it would be as memorable.
MS: We’ve kind of switched over to talking about, for lack of a better word, the meme-power of Shrek. It’s kind of impossible to describe why certain things get meme-ified. But I do wonder if the irreverent energy that makes Shrek iconic — the soundtrack, the crass humor, the cheeky soundbites — tapped into the essential, chaotic nature of what pleases the internet. Just to give an example of what I’m talking about: Shrek Retold is a feature-length, shot-for-shot remake of Shrek, worked on by two-hundred people. There’s also a Twitter bot that literally posts five frames from the film every thirty minutes. Shrek has transcended into a, like, deity of meme culture that exists completely separate from the technological importance of Shrek and its place within this very specific war between these vying animation studios.
AS: I mean, I feel like, for kids watching it at the time, Shrek felt like getting away with something.
MS: Yeah, like you were watching something you weren’t supposed to be watching… that was still explicitly made for you, a child.
AS: You know what? I’m going to go against what I said earlier. Maybe kids will watch Shrek in the future.
MS: What because it’s taboo?
AS: Yeah. I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting. Because there’s a lot of broad gross-out humor paired with very specific cultural parody.
MS: Yeah, I mean that just about summarizes the whole deal of the first three movies. When we sat down to watch these films, I hadn’t watched Shrek in a very long time. And there were things that for sure did not make me laugh when I was younger that cracked me up. We both really found the executioner, Thelonious (voiced by Christopher Knights), funny this time. I don’t think I’ve ever found that character funny before but he killed me.
AS: There are certainly jokes that haven’t aged well. Like the line about Snow White not being “easy” despite living with seven other men. But despite everything, as much as I kind of did not enjoy Shrek as much this time as I did when I was a child, I did have a better time with it than multiple Best Picture-nominated films this year. So, you know, that’s something.
MS: And I love John Lithgow as Lord Farquad. Like, it’s kind of an unimpeachable performance. He was given a really tall order-
AS: [laughing] did you do that on purpose?
AS: But I really do think that the voice performances across these films are quite good.
MS: Yeah, and what’s really cool about the voice performances is that at some point during the storyboard/pre-viz process the animators who’d been “doing” the voices for certain secondary characters just ended up actually portraying them in the movies. Like Chris Miller, who voices the Magic Mirror, was a story artist. He also co-directed Shrek the Third.
AS: Oh, that’s fun.
MS: Yeah, and I found myself getting the most amount of laughs from the supporting characters.
AS: Yeah like in the sequels, both Rupert Everett as Prince Charming and Jennifer Saunders as Fairy Godmother are wonderful. Hilarious.
MS: Some of the animation in the first Shrek doesn’t hold up. And that’s not the animators’ fault; they were literally inventing the wheel while they were driving the cart. But some CGI elements of the first film are distracting.
AS: Do you think they could ever make another one?
MS: I mean, supposedly a script for a fifth film exists.
AS: Can’t wait to get Shreked again.
MS: Hey, you said it, not me.