Twenty years before a saturation of snarky CG animated movies, Shrek was a revolution.
Leading up to Shrek, animated movies were dominated by Disney’s Broadway-style fairytale musicals. The Little Mermaid was the first movie to crack the formula, and only a few years later, Beauty and the Beast snagged a Best Picture nomination. For the first time in a very long time, animation was a viable and prestigious medium. Other studios wanted their own piece of that pie. The results were decidedly mixed.
Headed by former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was fired from Disney after butting heads with CEO Michael Eisner, DreamWorks Animation’s aim was to reportedly make serious animated movies for adults. That ethos translated to the studio’s second film, the sweeping Biblical epic that was Prince of Egypt. While most of the staff at DreamWorks spent their energy making these more prestigious films, other members of DreamWorks’ staff were tasked with figuring out how to make Shrek halfway decent.
“This was sort of a bastard child,” Shrek director Andrew Adamson recently told Inverse. “It was the island of misfit toys to a large degree. Everyone who didn’t work out on another project got sent onto Shrek.”
Over the last 20 years, members of the Shrek team have noted that it was mostly unloved by DreamWorks executives. But that basically opened up the reins for the filmmakers to step outside the box and really swing for a full comedy. DreamWorks wasn’t specifically chasing after the family-friendly Pixar and Disney audience and the studio as a whole wasn’t afraid to push some (gumdrop) buttons. It worked in their favor, even if the critical community wasn’t on board.
“We were trying to be a little edgier, a little dirtier, a little more adult,” Conrad Vernon, storyboard artist and voice of Gingerbread Man, tells Polygon. “Jeffrey [Katzenberg] even had a phrase that he used to say: Disney appeals to the child in every adult; we appeal to the adult in every child.”
While no one has outright said that Shrek was a potshot at Disney, self-awareness has made the film look starkly different from previous animated movies. Watching the movie with the knowledge that Kaztenberg had ugly, public beef with Disney after his dismissal makes many of the gags in the film go from funny to incredibly pointed. The first movie starts with Shrek reading from a fairytale book as soft instrumentals play, one specifically stylized like the opening shots of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and other classic Disney movies — and when he gets to the ending, he rips out the last page and uses it to wipe his ass. Cue “All Star’’ by Smash Mouth. Shrek takes place in a general fairytale world, which isn’t necessarily a Disney-specific trope, but there are enough specific jabs that anyone with a passing knowledge of the animation industry at that moment would see the satirical bite of the script.
One of the original Shrek’s most damning sequences is when Shrek and Donkey make their way to Duloc, Lord Farquaad’s pristine walled city. The overly clean streets, Farquaad-themed gift shops, and mascot character (whose coloring definitely resembles a certain mouse) all scream Disney theme parks, but it’s the little song at the information desk which sounds like a sarcastic rendition of “It’s a Small World” that really hammers it home.
While animated movies of the early 2000s might have tossed in a handful of pop culture references to appeal to adults, Shrek was packed wall to wall with jokes specifically for adults, with a few more universal gags that could work for everyone. Touchstones for the creative team were The Simpsons and Mad Magazine rather than entries in the animated canon. And unlike those musicals, which pumped out variations of an earnest hero’s journey, Shrek was built on a critique of the overwhelming monopoly and stronghold that Disney had over the industry. It turns out, that was exactly what audiences were looking for. DreamWorks’ next wave of movies pivoted away from the adventures like Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and toward more crass and referential comedies like Madagascar and Shark Tale. With box office to boot, studios followed DreamWorks’ lead and Disney found itself in a slump.
Shrek was a trendsetter, but surprise success and its immediate franchise potential morphed into the very thing it sought to critique. “Shrek” was no longer the kid in the back of the classroom, but the very thing it strove not to be: an overarching media powerhouse complete with spinoffs, merchandising deals, and theme park attractions galore.
Shrek 2 tried to keep the snide wit of the first movie intact, once again parodying Hollywood and celebrity culture. It’s a quality sequel, full of memorable moments, hilarious lines, and new, dynamic characters. Audiences agreed, with the movie raking in $900 million at the box office. Shrek was becoming a cultural behemoth and the executives at DreamWorks weren’t about to let this cash cow go. With four main films, a spinoff in Puss ’n Boots, eight shorts, three television and interactive specials, one spinoff television series, a musical, and 12 video game appearances (and that’s not even touching on all the merchandising deals), Shrek became a verifiable Lord Farquaad, and the the face of DreamWorks. An uglier, crasser, and ruder face than Mickey Mouse will ever be, but he is still a franchise figurehead.
The Shrek movies continued to bring in millions of dollars, but after the first two, the critical reviews plummeted. By the time the fourth installment, Shrek Forever After, rolled around in 2010, the concept was so stale that the literal plot was “What if Shrek never happened?” It felt like DreamWorks was making Shrek movies just for the sake of Shrek movies. Nothing hammers this harder than the Puss in Boots spinoff, which loses almost all the edge of the original Shrek and only exists because Puss is a familiar character, and therefore easy box-office money.
Even with a certain internet sector making Shrek ripe for edgy memes, it’s not actually edgy or counterculture to like Shrek. For all intents and purposes, Shrek is the culture, considering the way the franchise shaped animation in the years going forward. There is a direct line between the heavy pop-culture references in Shrek and 2017’s The Emoji Movie. Nowadays, even the most earnest Disney films feel the need to call themselves out for leaning on their old tropes, whether it’s Moana getting defensive when Maui calls her a princess or the entire Disney-website gag in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
There isn’t anything wrong with Shrek’s rise to pop-culture dominance. The Shrek movies are funny. The movies that followed in this same vein are as well. And the success of Shrek let DreamWorks continue to make movies even after some traditionally animated flops, eventually giving way to gems like How to Train Your Dragon and Kung-Fu Panda.
In 2001, the most pointed scene of the original movie was the kingdom of Duloc, a clear stand-in for Disneyland, complete with theme-park-perfect streets and gift shops full of merch. In 2021, Shrek has appeared in some capacity in Universal Studios parks all over the world: in the Shrek 4-D experience; as a costumed character in live shows; in waterpark attractions; in a tour right by the London Eye; in a whole-ass themed land in Universal Studios Singapore. So 20 years later, it’s time to wonder: Did Lord Farquaad actually win?