Shrek at 20: an unfunny and overrated low for blockbuster animation

The fairytale comedy was a hit with critics and audiences but its toilet humour, glibness and shoddy animation mark it out as a misfire

Shrek has an outhouse with a working toilet.

It is not part of the film’s cynical brand of “irreverence” that an ogre’s latrine is supported by modern plumbing. And it’s certainly not consistent with the hygiene of a swamp-dwelling beast who bathes in mud, brushes his teeth in slime and boasts of a killer weed rat stew. But after our lime-green hero literally wipes his ass with a fairytale ending, it was apparently decided that the film needed that emphatic flushing sound before the Smash Mouth single All Star kicked in and the introductory montage could commence.

Twenty years later, that flushing sound seems to signify the moment when blockbuster animation circled the drain. Shrek is a terrible movie. It’s not funny. It looks awful. It would influence many unfunny, awful-looking computer-animated comedies that copied its formula of glib self-reference and sickly sweet sentimentality. Three of those terrible movies 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 was a sensation with critics and audiences in 2001. After flailing in its early efforts to keep up with Disney – the animation house of which its co-founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was credited with reviving – DreamWorks had finally hit pay dirt, raising the possibility that it might become a viable challenger to established major studios. Even the stuffed shirts at the Cannes film festival, who usually separated Hollywood summer fare from its official selections, brought it into the competition slate, where it premiered alongside new work from 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 account for why Shrek hit the cultural moment as squarely as it did – other than, you know, people seemed to enjoy it – or why it will be celebrated in 20th anniversary pieces other than this one. But it’s worth pointing out how comprehensively bad its legacy remains, opening up the floodgates for other major studios to pile celebrities into recording booths, feed them committee-polished one-liners and put those lines in the mouths of sassy CGI animals or human-ish residents of the uncanny valley. Worse yet, it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time. Those once-upon-a-times were now rendered stodgy and lame, literally toilet paper.

Their replacement? Chiefly a flatulent ogre voiced by Mike Myers, who deploys the same accent that carried him through the All Things Scottish sketches on Saturday Night Live. Myers was only just past peak of his popularity when he replaced fellow SNL alum Chris Farley as Shrek, still riding high off two hit Austin Powers movies and still powerful enough to get DreamWorks to shrug its shoulders over allowing him to redo the part in Scottish. For years, Shrek had seemed like a disaster in the making – writers assigned to polish up the script likened 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, an up-for-anything damsel-in-distress, was stronger than they could have realized.

In fact, the roadmap for Shrek had already been drawn years earlier with The Princess Bride, a fractured fairytale that found the right balance between knowing, gently absurdist plays on storybook tradition and a sincere affirmation of their power. There is even a scene in Shrek that nods to the torture machine in the earlier film, with the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) working over the Gingerbread Man for information. But the balance in Shrek is off on both ends: there’s an excess of anachronisms and buddy-movie riffs from Myers and Murphy that have little relation to the backdrop and a woe-is-me soppiness to the love story between two lonely, misunderstood freaks. (Nothing screams “unearned gravitas” like slipping in a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.)

PRINCESS FIONA IN THE ANIMATED FILM “SHREK”AT 54TH CANNES FILM FESTIVALPrincess Fiona (L), with the voice of actress Cameron Diaz, from the animated film “Shrek”, is presented at the 54th International Cannes Film Festival, May 12, 2001. “Shrek”, by directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, is the first animated film entry to compete for the Palme d’Or since 1953. “Shrek” opens at the box office May 18 in the United States. REUTERS/DreamWorks Pictures - MANDATORY CREDIT

The most curious element of Shrek is how uninterested it seems to be in the fairytale universe it creates. In recent years, as studios have merged and brands have been further reinforced, we’re seen plenty of eagerness for companies to trot out their IP – hello, Space Jam: A New Legacy – but there is much greater promise in a film that’s about fairytale favorites under threat, from nursery rhymes to the Brothers Grimm. Some of these creatures are assembled in mass detentions by Lord Farquaad, who exiles them to Shrek’s swamp, and Princess Fiona’s dilemma, imprisoned in a dragon-guarded castle tower, recalls 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 appear in the woods, the film blows past that boring old mythos in order to pay homage to The Matrix and Riverdance.

What’s left is an all-ages film that’s somehow more crude and juvenile in its appeals to adults than children. The grownups in the room can snicker knowingly at Farquaad’s name and the repeated references to his penis size while the kids are left with fart jokes and the wanton diminishment of timeless characters and stories. Last year, the National Film Registry added Shrek to the Library of Congress, which seals its canonization, but it’s remarkable how much of an early aughts relic it’s become, an amber-preserved monument to phenomena (Mike Myers, Smash Mouth, Michael Flatley) that hasn’t stood the test of time. Even the film’s referential style looks resolutely slow and unhip next to the whirring pop Cuisinarts of Lord and Miller productions 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 save DreamWorks from selling itself off a few years later. It didn’t extend Myers’s career past a hard expiration date. And Katzenberg went on to found Quibi. The entire enterprise is better left in the past.


Scott Tobias

The GuardianTramp

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