In the opening 5 minutes of Shrek, we are shown a typical fairy tale love story told in a soothing voice from a fancy illustrated book. Only then for the pages of that book to be ripped out by a big green hand and used as toilet paper. Then, our main character, the beloved ogre, Shrek, bursts out of his outhouse to the sound of All Star by Smash Mouth. Everything in these moments is exactly why we still remember Shrek 20 years on. It shows both the attitude that went into writing the story, whilst also playing the song that has dominated the internet for the past decade, rivalled only by Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.
Shrek is very much the Anti-Disney Movie. The protagonist of the story is not a handsome prince with love in his heart, he’s a giant green Ogre that farts regularly and only saves the Princess as a favour to a man in return for getting magical squatters out of his swamp. Instead of a damsel in distress that waits starry eyed for her hero to save her, Princess Fiona is more than capable of fighting her own battles and beats up Robin Hood among many others. Also, Shrek isn’t accompanied by a cute, big eyed and furry animal, rather he’s begrudgingly stalked by a buck-toothed donkey that sings obnoxiously every second he gets the chance.
This idea was, of course, very much at the heart of the film’s production. Jeffrey Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen after creative differences led him to leave his position at Disney (where he oversaw the productions of films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King). Shrek was the first animated film that DreamWorks produced and the Disney animosity can be felt not only in the flipping of tropes and with ideas that would never get past Disney boards (like a dragon and a donkey making babies) but also with the film’s villain, Lord Farquaad. A character who’s comically small with a name that sounds suspiciously like f**kwad. It’s a commonly known secret that the villain is meant as a caricature of Disney’s then CEO Michael Eisner.
Compare Shrek to Beauty And The Beast, one of Disney’s most beloved films from its renowned “renaissance” era. At the end of Beauty And The Beast, Belle is rewarded for her love of the Beast by learning that underneath the horrible furry exterior, there is a cursed and very handsome prince. This sort of belittles the moral of the film that it’s not looks but personality and heart that matters in love. In Shrek, Fiona chooses to stay as a hideous ogre because she has found someone in Shrek that loves her for who she is, not because she’s a beautiful princess. Behind a lot of its crass and gross out humour, it has a more heart-warming and relatable message than even a Disney classic.
But Shrek‘s spiteful attitude toward Disney is not the main reason it has remained relevant 20 years on, being released the same year as Monsters Inc. and Spirited Away of all films. After all, we don’t all know the lyrics to All Star by Smash Mouth because of its use in Mystery Men. To many internet users, it would seem like Shrek has been a part of the meme zeitgeist since memes existed. But in fact many trace the origin of his presence to various 4chan posts entitled “Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life” which led to a video being uploaded to YouTube with the same title. The things that occur within these stories are way too dark to explain in this humble feature. If you haven’t experienced them for yourself then they are definitely worth seeing at least once.
Since that moment, Shrek has been ever present in meme culture, whether it be through classic songs or various YouTube “poops” (fan edits made of extremely absurdist and crude humour). This all culminated in the creation of Shrek Retold, a complete remake of the original film where hundreds of different creators took a few segments to re-do in their own animation styles. Some even go so far to film parts in live action. As this is as budget as films come, some of the animations are 2d and made on Flash while other parts are feature men painted green doing bad Scottish accents. It may be very cheap but it’s a glorious love letter to the original film and to meme culture in general.
Why is it though that Shrek is the film that has been the centre of the internet’s sense of humour for the past decade? It can’t be completely a generational thing. Monsters Inc. came out the same year and though it has had a few memes spawned from it, there’s never even been talk of a re-animated version of the Pixar classic. No, it lies in the fact that Shrek is itself a meme. Within it, there are tonnes of references to then current films and the use of contemporary music really making it a time capsule for early 2000’s pop culture. Spider-Man and The Matrix were obviously big films at the time and both are parodied in Shrek.
But really, what’s most resonant about Shrek is its main moral. You can find true love whoever you are. Monsters Inc. and Spirited Away are both beautiful films and are examples of the very best animation can offer. Both carry themes of the importance of family and that it’s not always about blood. However, as many films have said before and since, there’s nothing more powerful than true love.
The Shrek franchise is much like the Terminator one. Its first film set the standard, the second film is the masterpiece and the third and fourth films people generally want to forget about. And yes, Shrek 2 is in fact even better than Shrek. Everyone from a certain generation will remember the Holding Out For A Hero sequence as the best use of music in film ever conceived. But none of the memes, memories and even Broadway musicals would be here if it wasn’t for that first sight of an Ogre using a fairy tale book to clean his bottom after a number two.
All that glitters is gold, only shooting stars break the mould.