How “Shrek” Changed Animated Movies Forever

It somehow hit the sweet spot for kids, teens, and adults — becoming a meme machine in the process.

When did Shrek win you over? Do you remember which scene? For me, it’s when the Gingerbread Man has both of his legs cut off while being tortured for information on whether he knew the Muffin Man (the Muffin Man?). It’s not a scene that’s crucial to the story by any stretch, but I remember watching it as a preteen and having a jolt of a foreign feeling — that even though I was watching an animated movie, I was getting away with something. I mean, the Gingerbread Man was dunked (waterboarded?) in milk. This may have been a familiar character, but I was seeing him portrayed in a very different, even adult, setting. Usually, to get content like this, I’d have to sneak into a movie that carried a far more forbidden rating, like PG-13, possibly even R. I felt...special?

The film about an ogre who just wants some alone time before he gets a taste for helping people turns 20 this month. It’s the Shrekiversary, if you will. It was revolutionary, expanding the boundaries of CGI and challenging the accepted tone of children’s movies, while also becoming a box office hit. Shrek went on to become a global phenomenon worth billions. But in an unlikely twist, it has also managed the rare feat of enduring through generations. Two decades after its release, Shrek is still a source for shared references, memes, and TikToks. It now has resonance for people who were still babies when it came out.

So how did a movie that seemed like it was doomed become a bottomless well of inspiration across decades? Beyond the green ears and the cute-ugly merch and the endless sequels, Shrek worked — and still works — because it is genuinely edgy. It subverted the machinery of animated fairy tales by questioning who they are for in the first place, it let us briefly have a laugh at the Disneyfied views we grew up with, and it urged us to ditch them for the green, ugly truth: that we may all be deeply flawed in irreparable ways, but we still deserve to love ourselves. Shrek forever.

Shrek showers with a bucket of mud in a swamp

From the movie’s first scene, it’s obvious this is not going to be like other kids movies. For one, we meet Shrek in an outhouse, and he’s immediately foul-mouthed and irreverent — this is no clean-cut Toy Story. And then it arrives: the glorious moment Smash Mouth’s “All Star” begins to play as muddy lettering and a gross montage introduces us to our hero. Shrek picks his wedgie, showers with mud, and farts in the swamp. It’s a gross-out sequence that still grosses me out — it isn’t cute-gross, it’s gross-gross. A far cry from Beauty and the Beast — even Beast was overly concerned with manners. How the hell did a kids movie have the right to be this confrontational from the very beginning?

Perhaps Shrek gets its edge from the fact that it is, in part, a fuck-you. The movie was the pet project of Jeffrey Katzenberg, who cofounded DreamWorks Animation after leaving Disney in a bitter public battle after being “passed over” for a top job. Shrek has been interpreted as a sort of animated kiss-my-ass from Katzenberg to then–Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Plenty of people have commented on the resemblance between Eisner and the movie’s villain, Lord Farquaad.

Or perhaps the edge comes from the fact that by the time the movie was finally out, it had taken a long time to cook — six years from development to premiere — and had gone through so many different lives. At one point, Chris Farley had recorded nearly all of the dialogue as the titular character, and was ready to wrap it up, before he died of a drug overdose at 33.

Those who worked on Farley’s Shrek say it was sweet. It follows a young Shrek as he struggles to break from the family trade of scaring people, and Farley played Shrek in an uncharacteristically earnest and vulnerable way. After Farley’s death, the studio set about looking for a replacement, and after considering Nicolas Cage (who turned it down) and Leonardo DiCaprio (lol, imagine??), they decided on Mike Myers.

Trouble is: Myers, coming off the dizzying success of two Austin Powers movies, was not interested in doing a fill-in job, so he asked for a rewrite of the whole thing. And if that doesn’t add enough stress to a creative project, after the new version of the film was nearly done, Myers watched a rough cut, abruptly decided he no longer liked Shrek’s voice, and demanded to rerecord all of it in a Scottish accent. The rerecord alone cost $5 million.

Shrek somehow hit the sweet spot for the young children it was made for, the critics who loved it, and the snarky preteens.

In hindsight, some of this chaos worked its way into the movie. While Shrek still hangs together fairly well, it rapidly detours through vignettes that pushed the edge in ways that didn’t always serve the story — tangents like the Gingerbread Man scene, or the upsetting part where a singing bird blows the fuck up, or the cheerful “Welcome to Duloc” song (“Please keep off of the grass / Shine your shoes, wipe your…face”). The gags are hilarious — and form the lasting legacy of the movie — but they are several shades darker and more crude than the main storyline, a moving story about self-acceptance and the courage to love yourself in the face of a world that won’t love you.

As it turns out, the pace of the gags and the dark humor were the outcome of what co-director Andrew Adamson described as a pitching process to Katzenberg — “Jeffrey would always sit front and center and everyone would be trying to get him to laugh,” he told Inverse earlier this year.

This frenetic energy is what gives Shrek that something-for-everyone vibe. It somehow hit the sweet spot for the young children it was made for, the critics who loved it, and, in my case, the snarky preteens who were growing dissatisfied with what children’s movies had to offer and wanted to see the whole earnest animation enterprise blown to smithereens. (Look, you were also once a too-cool teenager, don’t look at me!)

The critical response, we should say, was unbridled enthusiasm. Roger Ebert gave it all the stars he could. The New York Times endorsed it too, its critic writing that “beating up on the irritatingly dainty Disney trademarks is nothing new; it's just that it has rarely been done with the demolition-derby zest of Shrek.” The result was a colossal box office success — Shrek closed out 2001 as the fourth-highest-grossing film in the US. It helped too that Disney’s offering for that summer was a movie no one remembers.

Hilariously, Shrek earned an air of respectability, too. It was chosen to premiere at Cannes, during a push for the film festival to become more in touch with what mass audiences wanted. Shrek joined David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Moulin Rouge in the main competition category at the fanciest film festival around. Shrek. A Palme d’Or contender. If you’re not dying of laughter at that, you’re not imagining the stuffiest film people, dressed in elaborate tuxes and gowns, watching fucking Shrek. At the 2002 Oscars, Shrek beat Monsters, Inc. to win the first-ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Here’s a funny mystery: Why are so many Gen Z’ers having Shrek-themed parties? There’s a deluge of TikToks featuring these parties — with people dressing up as characters from the movie, painting their bodies green, or pretending to be the three blind mice. Some of them are birthday parties. Some are Halloween parties. Some are just get-togethers where everyone is dressed as a character from Shrek.

So why would this generation turn to a movie that came out when they were likely not yet old enough to be shaped by it? One possible answer: Because of the crass commercialism. They may have missed the first movie, but Shrek has spawned enough sequels so that there was a good 15 years where you didn’t have to go more than two years without a new Shrek offering. I’m not just talking about the main four Shrek films or the Puss in Boots spinoff — there’s also the eight short films (including 2010’s Donkey’s Christmas Shrektacular) and the Puss in Boots TV series, which lasted three seasons. In other words, if you’re under 20, Shrek has likely been an efficient machine that could find you just about anywhere.

But here’s another possible answer for this Shrek popularity: because it changed pop culture for good. Everything is Shrek. It rewrote the rules for movie soundtracks. It solidified the DreamWorks cocked eyebrow look. And perhaps more importantly, it was an early signal to the kind of humor the internet loves.

The internet has had a long love affair with Shrek. Shrek internet gets weird and horny and a little disturbing. Perhaps the most accurate word is devout. You’ve probably seen (but not watched) Shrek: Retold, a shot-for-shot bizarro re-creation of the OG Shrek, done by about 200 “professional Shrekheads” in 2018. Theirs is a labor of love, of overcommitment, of driving the thing you love into the ground to get the point of your affection across. In that way, Shrek internet is a valuable piece of infrastructure to understand how we got to meme internet.

No one is quite sure how Shrek internet started. One theory points back to the franchise’s Facebook page, which launched in 2009 and weirdly started...posting as Shrek? It’s the kind of odd internet moment that launches memes and laughs and its own fictional universe, which builds and builds until it creates a self-sustaining momentum. Y’all don’t know that Brogre life. Or whatever this is. Deviant art indeed.

There’s a bot that tweets frames of Shrek every 30 minutes on Twitter. We once reproduced Shrek the same way we now reproduce everything else. Shrek was the prototype. Shrek was one of the ways we learned how to meme everything around us. Is it a surprise that members of a generation who grew up entirely on the internet think of Shrek when they want to party?

Someone in a Shrek costume holds their arms wide in front of a crowd of people wearing green headbands of ogre ears

The expectations for Shrek were low — some thought it would be “lucky” if it made more than $20 million in the US. It’s safe to say it blew well past that: the main films have pulled in well over $3 billion just in box office sales. It has spurred a Broadway musical, a theme park, and an overwhelming barrage of merchandise. Shrek transcended its chaotic birth story to become a bona fide cultural touchstone of the 21st century, and an enduring meme factory for a generation that needed it.

But more than that, its success changed how we do animated films. Soundtracks loaded up with superstars? Shrek. Pop culture references in kids movies? Thanks, Shrek. The movie reset the tone of animated films, with studios clamoring to throw in jokes that are just for the adults in the room — jokes that people are still unearthing decades later. Every time I rewatch Shrek, I find a new joke that I missed all these years, a bit that took time to bloom. When I do, it returns me to that initial feeling that I’m getting away with something, a treasure meant just for me. It’s not hard to imagine Shrek will be giving people that same feeling for decades to come. ●

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