The Persistent Appeal of Shrek
As we approach two decades of everyone’s favourite ogre Paul Childs takes a look at why that green-skinned, onion-layered monster still resonates with audiences today.
Once Upon A Time…
I first saw Shrek at Switch Island Odeon in Liverpool soon after it came out. My wife and I took a day off from work to see it, knowing the screen was unlikely to be packed out. A cunning plan which backfired on us a little. With our usual visits being on a weekend, we didn’t take Aintree’s midday traffic into account and we arrived a few minutes late – maybe only three or four.
“That’s OK,” I said. “There’s always twenty minutes of ads at the start. We should be fine.”
Only three times in my life have I been to the cinema when the movie started at exactly the advertised time. One was Avengers: Endgame in the Manchester Printworks IMAX just a couple of years ago; Shrek was another.
As we ambled into the screen, Haagen Daaz and drink in hand, we were treated to the sound of a song I recognised from Mystery Men a few years earlier – Smash Mouth’s All Star. It was also quite dark.
“This must be the trailers,” I said.
We found our seats and glanced up at the screen to see:
“Oh blimey! We only just made it!” I said.
It wasn’t until I got the DVD for Christmas that year – almost six months later – that I discovered we’d missed a whole load of classic Disney style storybook exposition followed by a toilet-humour gag that would set the tone for much of the film.
I can tell you’re dying to know, so the third film was Rush Hour 2. Same cinema and only a few weeks later. I think they must have been experimenting with ad-free viewings for a brief time. It was also the same situation – we were running a few minutes late and came into the theatre to see Jackie Chan up some bamboo scaffolding fighting off bad guys.
However, unlike Rush Hour 2, thankfully missing that prologue didn’t impact upon the story or ruin the experience.
Think back to 2001 – it was only the early days of having accessibly internet. Smartphones were still at least half a decade away, we were still on dial-up at home and the broadband at work was only something like 256kbps – a speed which today seems like a snail’s pace, but at the time, when compared to dial-up felt almost like magic. At home, a 3MB song on Napster (shhh don’t tell anyone about my piratey ways) would take up to an hour to download. And like The Blair Witch Project before it, Shrek was using the web as a promotional tool. Unlike Blair Witch though, which heavily played into the film’s deception, Shrek‘s online presence was more about the technical details of making the thing.
So one day while I was on my lunch break at work, I downloaded this picture (which, even on my work’s superfast broadband still took almost ten minutes):
I spent AGES zooming in on that screenshot, marvelling at the craftsmanship of the animators, even in a still. Take a look at this section, for example:
I was astounded at the level of detail; individual hairs, pores in the skin, grooves in the lips and even a little zit on Lord Farquaad’s chin which, when you zoom back out again, you can’t even see.
What you also have to remember about 2001 is that CG animated films were still very much the minority (although this would soon change). At the time of Shrek‘s release only around thirty fully computer-generated movies had been released WORLDWIDE since Toy Story, the very first one in 1995 and most of them had been low budget straight-to-video affairs. Shrek was the first one I ever saw where the human characters, albeit often in caricature, actually looked human. Compare the images above with the frankly horrifying visage of Andy, one of the few human characters, from the first Toy Story film only six years earlier:
Yes, Shrek might look dated and clunky these days, but at the time it was a huge technical achievement. Go back another couple of decades from Shrek, to the very early days of CGI enhancement in movies like Tron, The Last Starfighter and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. All those films were viewed with awe at the time but they pale into insignificance when compared to Shrek. I don’t believe that there is such a significant change in quality between Shrek and today’s CG animations like Trolls: World Tour or Soul.
There were more fully CG animated films released in 2020 alone than there were in those first six years between Toy Story and Shrek combined but looking at the numbers, one can plainly see that something happened to change all that in 2001 and it certainly wasn’t Disney’s doing. They had already been churning out one or two CG animated movies per year at this point, still favouring traditional cell animation for their big Classic releases, but the success of Shrek opened the floodgates to a veritable tsunami of computer-animated films.
Next month, June 2021, sees the twentieth anniversary of the UK release of the first part of DreamWorks Animation’s centrepiece franchise. Last year it was chosen by The Library of Congress for inclusion in the USA’s National Film Registry – the first non-Disney animation to achieve such an honour.
At the end of year box office for 2001, Shrek came fourth, being beaten only by Monsters, Inc, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone. Not bad for a film that cost around half the amount to produce as contemporaries from the House of Mouse such as the aforementioned Monsters, Inc and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
But there’s so much more to like about Shrek than the technical and financial aspects. The first film alone has had a massive cultural impact. Like other late 90s/early 2000s phenomenons such as Friends, Sex & The City, Moulin Rouge or South Park, Shrek has had an undeniable impact on the general public.
How many times have you said, “Get out of my swamp/face/bedroom/office” in a gentle Scottish brogue? Or said “Everybody likes Parfait [or insert other delicious food here]” when someone has expressed a dislike for a delicious food? More times than you think, I’d wager. But while Shrek‘s dialogue is witty and funny, it’s the well-drawn central characters themselves who I feel really seemed to strike a chord with viewers.
Not least our titular hero. Shrek, unlike many central characters in children’s films, is not, as I just said one sentence back, in any sense, a traditional hero. He doesn’t seek adventure or excitement and just wants to be left in peace to his own devices. It’s only through external circumstances beyond his control that he is reluctantly forced to participate in a quest. Often in films like this, it is the hero’s sidekick who acts as the audience surrogate, the one who asks questions on the viewers’ behalf, providing the hero with the opportunity to explain everything (much like Doctor Who with the companions). But here, Shrek himself is very much the surrogate, the one who we identify with.
“But how can this be?” I hear you ask. “He’s a filthy ogre!”
Yes, he is, but being an ogre alone isn’t what defines him. He even tells us early on, albeit by way of a very clumsy onion metaphor. Ask yourself this question: What Does Shrek Actually Want?
The villagers, Lord Farquaad and even initially Donkey would say that he wants to grind the bones of intruders, that he wants to hide under bridges and eat billy goats, that he wants to terrorise the land. But when we meet him, it’s a very different story. We’re introduced to Shrek enjoying life, quietly and happily. And isn’t that what we all want?
Even when he does behave in a more ogre-ish manner, he’s only playing the part society has granted him to preserve his peaceful existence. We know Shrek is not violent – he roars at the pitchfork-wielding mob, but when it comes to the crunch, he actually does nothing. he even gently ushers one villager too terrified to move on their way. His voice is soft. Even his appearance, which by conventional standards is not handsome, is deliberately designed to be appealing. The smooth, round head, the large eyes, the broad grin – he conforms to many of the standards employed by Disney in their heroic and cute characters.
But he’s an ogre. And we think him disgusting only because that’s what fairy tales have taught us.
One of the defining characteristics of Shrek’s humour is that it is heavily toilet-based. This is used to compound, once more, the disgustingness of ogres. Yet how often do we laugh at our own bodily functions? Why, just the other day (and this is an absolutely true story which I am not ashamed to tell you) I bent down to pick up something from the floor and the sound that was released from my rear end made me laugh out loud because it was nearly identical to the trombone slide at the start of the theme tune to 1980s children’s TV show Johnny Briggs.
But when Shrek breaks wind it is initially presented as abhorrent behaviour. And this narrative, about the horribleness of Shrek leads into the introduction of…
Probably one of Eddie Murphy’s finest performances, up there with Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop, Prince Akeem from Coming to America or his Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performance as Jimmy “Thunder” Early in Dream Girls.
What’s interesting about Donkey is that he is presented to us as the polar opposite of Shrek; optimistic, cheerful and brave where Shrek is pessimistic, grumpy and cowardly. Donkey, like Shrek, is also not what he seems. It’s almost as if the writers of Shrek credit us viewers with enough intelligence to appreciate that generally, people are complex individuals who don’t tend to conform to accepted stereotypes.
Donkey is small, weak and at times, annoyingly chipper. Where Shrek prefers peace and quiet, Donkey, like nature, abhors a vacuum and fills every silence with inane jibber-jabber. Yet the mismatched buddy-duo (the bedrock of many a Hollywood blockbuster) are more alike than they care to admit. Yet they come with enough diversity to give us some absolutely brilliant dialogue that crackles with humour, wit and a huge dollop of pathos, Donkey and Shrek are very much the heart of this film. Their journey from reluctant partners to lifelong friends is incredibly touching and doesn’t feel at all forced. They don’t magically bond all of a sudden – right up to the end they are occasionally getting on each other’s nerves – and if you think about the relationships with your friends and family, isn’t the much more realistic?
That what is supposed to be such a docile, peaceful creature is actually so rambunctious is the counterpoint to the joke about Shrek betraying the conventions society has placed on him. But what they do have in common is that they are both rejected, both hurting and, it turns out, both lonely.
By the time Shrek and Donkey set off on their quest we have subconsciously been fed a whole bunch of stuff about not judging things by their appearance alone.
And that brings me to Princess Fiona.
Aside from a brief appearance in the prologue and a mention in the Magic Mirror’s Dating Game parody early on, Fiona doesn’t resurface until about halfway through the film.
When we first meet her, held captive by a terrible dragon, she appears to be everything the fairy tales told us. By this point should be to question everything we see, but somehow those damn fairy tales have got into our subconscious again. Fiona, as we should have expected, is not what she seems. Despite her delicate appearance, she is argumentative, sometimes crude and most of all hard as nails. Can you imagine Disney’s Princess Aurora giving Robin Hood a quick knee to the groin?
In a hilarious poke at the image of women that Disney had been known to convey, we also find out that she is, unlike Snow White, a dreadful singer.
It’s at this point that we begin to let our guard down. OK, so we know appearances are not everything. Shrek is kind, despite appearing mean, Donkey is a gentle soul, despite appearing aggressively hyperactive and Fiona, we smugly tell ourselves, having worked out exactly where this story is going, is not the sweet and gentle maiden from tales of yore, but a modern Strong Female Character. “Yes,” we say, patting ourselves on the back. “That’s it. Hollywood likes those nowadays.”
And everything changes again. The film’s penultimate twist, and its main message, is laid bare for us in a devastating way that genuinely took me by surprise on my first viewing all that time ago.
Have you ever joined a slimming group or attended a gym where you overhear one of the lithe, jacked-up, sexy Adonises or Venuses complain that they wish they were slimmer? Or stronger? Or faster? Or better? That’s the road we think we’re being led down.
But what we get instead is the moral of a modern fable that is as relevant to adults as it is to children. A message that – not in small part thanks to this film – is much more prevalent in today’s society and is quite rightly highlighted as an important mental health issue. Something that is paraphrased at the end of every single episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (and its numerous spinoffs):
Body Positivity and Self Image, we suddenly realise, have been at the heart of this film all along.
Shrek behaves the way he does because to act how other people see him is easier than to be himself.
Donkey hides his insecurity about being alone by pretending to be the confident one.
The supposedly evil Lord Farquaad, as we are led to believe, is a bully because he himself has been bullied over his diminutive stature. Farquaad’s downfall is in his failure to accept who he really is, preferring to live a pretence which, while earning him vast amounts of power and wealth, means he is ultimately unhappy and friendless.
The dragon is bitter, partly at having been locked up for decades, but also for people instantly reacting to her with terror. When Donkey actually stops and talks to her we realise she’s not a ferocious villain but just someone hurting deeply and responding, much like Shrek did earlier in the film, in ways she has been conditioned to after years of the knee-jerk fear, rejection and expectation of others.
And Fiona just plain hates how she looks, albeit her cursed nighttime appearance, despite it having been a part of her for as long as she could remember. People told her she was ugly – so she believes it.
It’s not until someone actually comes out and finally tells her the words “But Fiona, you are beautiful,” that the curse is broken in, as I mentioned before, one last, wonderful twist, which, ONCE AGAIN, turns our expectations about appearances on their heads.
As someone who has had lifelong struggles with weight and body image issues, Shrek is a wonderful tonic to Hollywood’s usual penchant for musclebound adventurers and stunningly attractive damsels. And while I enjoy a good macho action-adventure, here is a film in which nobody is really the hero, and everybody (almost) saves everybody else by accepting them for who they are and celebrating those little, and sometimes big, imperfections that make each character unique.
By carefully negotiating its way around the countless jaded tropes of almost every fairy tale ever, Shrek delivers a perfect fairy tale ending – one which can be enjoyed by anyone, be they fat or thin, short or tall, young or old, black or white… or even green.
Shrek‘s message has persisted for twenty years and hopefully will do for many years to come until we all finally learn how to get along and live happily ever after.