Shrek has an outhouse with a working toilet.
It’s not part of the film’s cynical brand of “irreverence” that an ogre’s latrine is backed up by modern plumbing. And it’s certainly not compatible with the hygiene of a swamp beast that bathes in mud, brushes its teeth in slime, and brags about weed-killing rat stew. But after our lime green hero literally wiped his ass with a fairy tale ending, it was apparently decided the movie needed that emphatic flushing sound before Smash Mouth’s All Star single kicked off and that the intro editing can begin.
Twenty years later, that hunting sound seems to signify the moment a hit animation circled the drain. Shrek is a terrible movie. It’s not funny. It looks awful. It would influence many unfunny and gruesome computer-animated comedies that copied his formula of flippant self-reference and sweet, sickly sentimentality. Three of those terrible films were sequels to Shrek and one was a spin-off with a sequel in the works. The curse has eased but not lifted.
And yet, Shrek caused a stir with critics and audiences alike in 2001. After failing in its early efforts to follow Disney – the animation house whose co-founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was credited with reviving – DreamWorks had finally hit the ground running. land, raising the possibility of it becoming a viable challenger for established major studios. Even the padded shirts of the Cannes festival, which usually separated Hollywood’s summer fare from its official selections, brought it into the competition roster, where it premiered alongside new works by world masters like David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien. and Jacques Rivette. (Liv Ullmann’s jury left it empty-handed, alas.)
It’s hard to explain why Shrek hit the cultural moment as squarely as he did — other than, you know, people seemed to like it — or why he’ll be celebrated in 20th anniversary rooms other than this one. -this. But it’s worth pointing out how bad its legacy remains overall, opening the floodgates for other major studios to cram celebrities into recording booths, feed them committee-polished one-liners, and put those lines in the mouths of sassy CGI animals or human inhabitants of the strange valley. Worse, it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any serious engagement with them a waste of time. Those once upon a time were now rendered stodgy and lame, literally toilet paper.
Their replacement? Mostly a flatulent ogre voiced by Mike Myers, who sports the same accent that carried him through All Things Scottish sketches on Saturday Night Live. Myers had just passed the peak of his popularity when he replaced fellow SNL alum Chris Farley as Shrek, still up to two Austin Powers blockbuster movies and still powerful enough for DreamWorks to up his game. the shoulders to allow him to redo the role in Scottish. For years, Shrek had seemed like a disaster in the making – writers tasked with polishing the script compared it to the “gulag” – but the conceptual hook of its fairytale universe, combined with the buddy chemistry of Myers and Eddie Murphy as Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as Fiona, a damsel in distress out for anything, was stronger than they could have realized.
In fact, Shrek’s roadmap had already been charted years earlier with The Princess Bride, a fractured fairy tale that struck the right balance between scholarly and gently absurd plays on storybook lore and assertive sincere about their power. There’s even a scene in Shrek that nods to the torture machine in the previous film, with the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) working on the Gingerbread Man for information. But the balance in Shrek is lopsided on both sides: there’s an excess of anachronisms and friend movie riffs from Myers and Murphy that bear little relation to the backdrop and a story of love between two lonely and misunderstood monsters. . (Nothing screams “undeserved gravity” like slipping into a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.)
The most curious element of Shrek is how indifferent he seems to the fairy tale universe he creates. Over the past few years, as studios have merged and brands have grown even stronger, we’ve seen a lot of eagerness for companies to unveil their IP – hello, Space Jam: A New Legacy – but there’s a lot more promises in a film that is on favorites from threatened fairy tales, nursery rhymes to the Brothers Grimm. Some of these creatures are assembled into mass detentions by Lord Farquaad, who exiles them to Shrek’s Swamp, and Princess Fiona’s dilemma, imprisoned in a castle tower guarded by a dragon, is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. But once Shrek and Donkey cross the kingdom on a quest to bring Fiona to Farquaad, the storybook references are all but abandoned. Even when Robin Hood and his Merry Men show up in the woods, the film moves past that annoying old myth to pay homage to The Matrix and Riverdance.
What Remains is an all-ages movie that’s somehow more crass and juvenile in its appeals to adults than kids. The adults in the room may knowingly sneer at Farquaad’s name and the repeated references to the size of his penis while the kids are left with farting jokes and the gratuitous diminishment of timeless characters and stories. Last year, the National Film Registry added Shrek to the Library of Congress, sealing his canonization, but it’s remarkable how he’s become an ancient relic, a monument to phenomena preserved in amber ( Mike Myers, Smash Mouth, Michael Flatley) that hasn’t stood the test of time. Even the movie’s referential style feels decidedly slow and offbeat next to Cuisinarts’ whirring pop productions of Lord and Miller like The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or even IP-heavy Disney fare like Wreck-it Ralph. and its sequel.
In the end, Shrek didn’t stop DreamWorks from selling out a few years later. It didn’t extend Myers’ career past a tough expiration date. And Katzenberg went on to found Quibi. It is better to leave the whole business in the past.