In 2001, Shrek was a massive box-office success, a breakthrough for computer-generated animation, and eventually, the Academy Awards’ first winner for Best Animated feature. In 2021, it is a grotesque glob of silly putty for the unhinged minds of Tumblr, 4chan, and Reddit to stretch into punch-drunk absurdity.
When did Shrek cross the meme threshold? Tracing the ogre’s mud tracks back in time brings us to 2013, when a 4chan user wrote a disturbing greentext story in which Shrek does some … ugly sex stuff. The goal was clearly to create the most gruesome remix of a kids’ movie possible. That’s also how the very NSFW video “Shrek is love, Shrek is life” was burped into existence, and somehow, entered the “normie” circles of the internet as though it were Shrek himself scaling Princess Fiona’s tower.
Over time, as Shrek memes oozed off 4chan onto less sinister internet pastures, the jokes became more wholesome and silly. The internet meme regime blessed us with creations like “Shrek but every time he takes a STEP it gets 5% faster,” a masterclass in the art of iMovie that has over 30 million views on YouTube. In 2018, over 200 artists came together to create a fan-made recreation of the entire 90-minute movie. To quote Smash Mouth’s “All Star” — which the internet also reprocessed, since it was used in the Shrek opening credits — the memes start comin’ and they don’t stop comin’.
But why Shrek? As Donkey tells his grumpy companion, “You got that on-I-don’t-care-what-nobody-thinks-of-me thing. I like that.” Even years after its release, audiences still appreciated Shrek’s status as the smelliest fairy tale hero of all time. Like so much meme fodder, the creators of the movie made it easy, even down to the pixels that sculpted Shrek’s viridescent physique.
Dreamworks Animation came into the world of 3D CG looking like an off-brand version of Disney or Pixar. In 1998, Dreamworks and Pixar released Antz and A Bug’s Life, respectively, with the former receiving dismal reviews. So, Dreamworks animators were instructed to make Shrek 10-times better than Antz, and they dreamed big (and weird) to do so. The animators even poured mud on themselves to better understand how to animate Shrek’s swampy surroundings.
The entire concept of the first Shrek seems to nod to Dreamworks’ scruffy status – the franchise continuously spoofs the tired Disney tropes of a prince and princess living happily ever after. According to The Men Who Would Be King, Nicole LaPorte’s 2010 book about Dreamworks, animators who underperformed on more serious films like The Prince of Egypt were reassigned on this upside-down fairy tale. They called this getting “Shreked.” Surprisingly, the team who brought characters like Donkey and Lord Farquaad to life had the last laugh. In 2001, Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire only made $186.1 million at the box office, compared with Shrek’s $484.4 million.
Shrek was like the public domain fairy tale version of The Avengers, but when boards like Shrekchan were established in 2010 by fans that knighted themselves “Brogres,” the movie was treated like a public domain entity in itself. By 2012, a hobbyist animation program called Source Filmmaker (SFM) entered an open beta, allowing meme aficionados to craft off-kilter, esoteric new adventures for the ogre they worshipped. Masterpieces of the form include Shrek Gets Spooked, a Goosebumps spoof; Shrek It Ralph, a re-creation of Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph featuring Shrek; and Shrek’s Day Out, a lightning-paced romp through Shrek’s absurdist world, including visits to Shrekway and Waffle Shrek that has almost 27 million views.
Dreamworks’ animation may have been cutting-edge in 2001, but over a decade later, the more artistically-savvy Brogres could craft their own downloadable assets of characters and scenes from Shrek that anyone with SFM could adapt. Much like Pepe the Frog, who started as a character in Matt Furie’s slacker comedy comic Boy’s Club and went through so much meme appropriation that by 2016 was declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, Shrek’s nascent 3D animation form was malleable. The more easily adaptable a character is, the further it can sink into the internet swamp, absorbing the muddy, digital detritus until it rises to the surface of meme culture, gasping for air.
Shrek hasn’t suffered the same horrific fate as Pepe, but the two viral creatures share some other key similarities: They both come from self-satirizing source media (Boy’s Club riffed on a group of animal friends figuring it out post-college), and they’re both easy to recreate. When Pepe began appearing on alt-right merchandise, Furie took legal action to snuff out any off-brand appearance. But despite how contorted they’ve become, Shrek memes have proliferated without much legal pushback. Dreamworks has issued DMCA takedowns of Shrek meme content through content scrapers on sites like YouTube, but poor fan re-drawings and SFM animations are rarely pegged as violations by the copyright robot brigade.
Dreamworks might be entitled to slapping Shrek memes with copyright infringement, but why lose the free advertising? The proliferation of Shrek content is what makes the film still relevant 20 years later. Plus, to put it simply, copyright law leaves some wiggle room for parodies or spoofs of copyrighted content. For memes like “Watch at 0.25x for the entire Shrek movie,” which upload a downloaded, probably illegal version of Shrek, the swampy waters get foggier. But as a YouTube commenter says,“Is it legal? Probably not. Do we care? Ofcourse [sic] not it’s frickin Shrek.”
To this day, the four installments in the Shrek franchise remain Dreamworks’ four highest-grossing films. This lasting relevance of Shrek in pop culture incentivizes production companies to let their property be adapted and iterated upon by fans. Even Disney has started to come around, realizing that the best way for an animated film to remain relevant is for it to become a meme. Would Disney have let Ratatouille: The Musical fly if it weren’t for Shrek? Probably not.