Watching 'Shrek' in 2021 Can Still Fry Your Brain
We're looking back at 'Shrek,' and whether it's as funny as we remember, to celebrate the movie's 20th anniversary.
For a film with such a rowdy reputation, Shrek's premiere was a high-class affair. A week before its May 21 arrival in North American theaters, the animated movie made its international debut at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where it had been selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or prize against films like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, and Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. (Those four would make for a wild day of movie-watching.) In a cruel slight to Shrek, the award went to The Son's Room, an Italian film from director Nanni Moretti, but, at least from a financial standpoint, Shrek—which grossed more than $267 million domestically and nearly $500 million worldwide, won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and spawned three sequels, a spin-off, a Broadway musical, and endless merchandise—got the last laugh. Or the last burp. Or the last fart.
Most people who saw Shrek did not catch it at a star-studded premiere in France. If you were a parent or a child during the initial height of Shrek mania, you likely caught it at a movie theater birthday party, a raucous DVD-filled sleepover, or a long-afternoon trip on a bus. Like the green computer-generated grass that covers the titular ogre's swamp, Shrek was everywhere. The ubiquity of Shrek, the way the film smeared mud across pop culture and reinvented the animated film landscape in its own mirror-cracking image, is what makes revisiting it and assessing it as a cultural object so uniquely challenging. Does Shrek hold up? Is it a four-star triumph, "jolly and wicked, filled with sly in-jokes and yet somehow possessing a heart," or, as one critic suggested at the time, is it, along with all computer animation, "the work of the antichrist"?
To sort through some of these questions, our staff Shrek-perts Sadie Bell, Leanne Butkovic, Daniel Jackson, Emma Stefansky and Esther Zuckerman re-watched the film with an eye towards making an honest account of its flaws, its excesses, and its Smash Mouth-backed pleasures. They did their best to be honest about their complicated personal histories with the larger Shrek-verse that might cloud their judgement, but it was tough to resist the pull of nostalgia. Even if you're not the sharpest tool in the shed, this is a movie that tends to make you a believer.
When did you first see Shrek and what was your reaction?
Emma Stefansky: I definitely saw it when it came out, like any child of that era. I don't remember the FIRST time I saw it, but I remember quoting plenty of it in car rides with my friends and annoying the hell out of our parents. Definitely vibed with the potty humor, but the exploding bird upset me. I still can't watch that part.
Esther Zuckerman: I LOVED Shrek. Shrek was everything to me. Shrek fell in the perfect wheelhouse for me: I thought farts were hilarious, still do, and was obsessed with Disney but also canny enough to be aware of its issues when it came to female representation. Not that Fiona is a perfect inversion of the Disney heroine, but at the time I thought it was very significant and moving that she chooses to be an ogre at the end. Spoiler, I guess. My dad and I would quote Shrek back and forth to one another. He too loves farts.
Leanne Butkovic: I think I saw Shrek in theaters like three times and am absolutely certain that I quoted it and listened to the soundtrack incessantly, screaming along to favorite songs with my best friend on the drive to school, which I'm sure her dad absolutely loved. I remember feeling "smart" because I "understood" Fiona's mid-air hang kick as a callback to The Matrix, a movie I watched the year before and it made me cry because I was so scared. I also was (disturbingly) drawn to the "cotton candy" spider web and rats on a stick, cooked over an open flame, and deeply wished (believed?) I would transform into a different being in the moonlight. Normal! I'm compelled to add: A year or so after the premiere, the Shrek piano book came out, which I obviously begged my teacher to get for me. The arrangements, aside from "Hallelujah," sounded like shit—nobody should have written sheet music for "Bad Reputation" for a pianist at any level.
Sadie Bell: I actually do remember the first time I saw Shrek, which is kind of surprising considering I was 5-years-old and in preschool. But I was obsessed with fairy tales and magical creatures—like to the extent that I wrote letters to "the fairies"—so it was exactly what I wanted and more. More being that it had fart jokes. I remember my mom took me and a couple of my friends to the theater and thinking it was hilarious (and her subsequently telling people that I "picked up on" the adult humor). I can't recall the entire viewing experience, but I do remember really loving the final scene where "I'm a Believer" plays and you get to see all of the characters together. (Shout out to my favs: The Three Blind Mice and the Three Little Pigs). And like everybody else mentioned, it definitely had staying power throughout my elementary school experience. The quotable lines, the soundtrack that our art teacher played during class, "All Star" on Radio Disney—Shrek was the aughts elementary school moment.
Dan Jackson: For me, the summer of 2001 was all about two films: Shrek and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Both movies are modern fairy tales—while Steven Spielberg's science-fiction epic is a literal Pinocchio narrative about an android hoping to become a "real boy," Shrek relegates the wooden puppet to a background gag in its mash-up of fables—and this might sound ridiculous or perverse, but they've always been linked in my brain. I read about both in magazines and online before they were released, saw both in theaters at the local Regal Cinemas, and later bought the DVDs, which I would revisit over and over. If you're 12, any art that pushes back against, mocks, or simply acknowledges key mythical storytelling tropes can have a weird potency, and, again, this might be embarrassing to admit, but Shrek was part of a media diet that made me think about this stuff more critically than I might have before. Plus, it had Mike Meyers (Austin Powers! Wayne's World!) and Eddie Murphy (The Nutty Professor! Doctor Doolittle!) and Cameron Diaz (The Mask! There's Something About Mary!). Essential viewing.
What did you expect to get out of watching Shrek in 2021?
Emma: I was really interested to see whether or not the humor holds up (a lot of it does!) and whether I would actually enjoy watching it without my memories of it clouding my judgement. Especially after living through a whole two decades of genre entertainment bowing to aggressive meta-humor (one that Shrek almost single handedly ushered in), I didn't know whether I would look back on its pop culture references and jabs fondly or if it would give me a bad taste in my mouth. Like, you know. Swamp water or something.
Dan: I was also really curious about the jokes. There's this Patton Oswalt stand-up routine about doing "punch-up's" on computer animated movies, which basically involves pitching off-screen gags for characters to yell over the action, and I associate the unrelenting (and often annoying) quippy-ness of modern animated movies with Shrek's critical and commercial success.
Esther: I was wondering if I can divorce Shrek, the movie, from Shrek the phenomenon. Shrek has had such a weird afterlife on the internet that I was curious as to whether the movie could stand alone.
Leanne: How accurate is my memory of the scenes that have been lodged in my brain for 20 years? Is it as funny as I remember, and as deranged as TikTok and Rule 34 culture has made it out to be? How many jokes meant for the adults taking their kids to see Shrek would I pick up on? Was the CGI really that ugly? Were the needle drops still effective?
Sadie: Honestly, I was curious to see if there would be any explanations in the movie itself for the sexual memes it's inspired. As I suspected, the evidence is there. While the horniness around Shrek is its own thing, I was curious if the Dragon/Donkey moment was as flirtatious as I remember (it is, and good for her) and if anything else was in there that I might've missed when I was younger. There's definitely a few innuendos, and what I was most shocked by was the scene of Lord Farquaad lying shirtless in his zebra-printed bed, sipping on a cocktail. So, even if Shrek has become a monster of its own, it certainly feels like it's part of a bygone era of very adult humor in kids' movies that's contributed to its sexually charged legacy.
How did you react when the Smash Mouth song started?
Emma: I had a memory flash of a huge argument I had with my friend back when this movie came out over whether the lyric was "all that livin' is good" or "all that glitters is gold." I was wrong. In my defense, I did not know how to google the lyrics to a song when I was a child.
Esther: I started dancing. I swear to god. This movie literally starts in the toilet and therefore I am sold.
Leanne: I threw back my head in Paulie Walnuts-esque laughter—I had absolutely forgotten it came basically immediately. I would also like to commend Shrek's disgusting resourcefulness, namely eating a fish he killed with his toxic fart and yanking out his own earwax for a candle.
Sadie: It's just completely overwhelming. The needle drop as soon as he exits his swamp outhouse? You can't not laugh.
Dan: I definitely owned Astro Lounge on CD, so I can't pretend to be above a well-executed Smash Mouth needle-drop.
What was the most surprising part of re-watching Shrek?
Emma: I was surprised by how much I remembered, all of the little tiny moments that stuck in my brain. The way the roasted slug(???) jiggles when Shrek cuts into it at the dinner table, or the slow-motion running from the dragon when they get to the castle. There's so much of that movie that is absolutely branded into my brain.
Sadie: I, too, was shook by how much Shrek imagery is apparently cemented in my mind. For me, it was the balloons Shrek and Fiona make out of a frog and snake—forever scarred. What I was mostly surprised by, though, (and what I feel deserves more attention) is how cute Donkey is. He was always my favorite part of the movie because Eddie Murphy is so damn funny, but we never talk about how freaking adorable he is. Shrek prides itself on being disgusting and crude, but he is a seriously cute furry companion with his stocky, little body and expressive ears even if he's not supposed to be!
Esther: Sadie, I completely agree! Donkey reminded me of my dog as they both have big ears and short legs and long faces. Aside from that, I think I was most surprised by how many genuinely sort of lovely quiet moments there are. I'm serious. The movie is not the barrage of cringey jokes I thought it was. I'm talking about the lovely sequence of Shrek eating dinner alone before he's bombarded by the fairytale creatures, and even, frankly, the "Hallelujah" bit. Shrek 2 is where the franchise starts to double down on the idea that every line of dialogue needs to be a reference to something else.
Dan: I agree that Murphy's performance as Donkey is really what that makes the movie work. He's obviously a comedy icon—and his recent appearance on SNL and movies like Dolemite Is My Name have reminded more people of that—but I was surprised how much it felt like Donkey carries the movie on his little donkey shoulders.
Leanne: Just how much I remember—Shrek's WWE-style smackdown in Duloc, the whole bridge scene, the stargazing, Fiona's high note and exploding bird, the very specific cue cards in Fiona and Farquaad's wedding, honestly the vast majority of this movie and the exact inflections of so, so many lines—and the parts I inexplicably forgot, like the whole plot setup and how Donkey even meets Shrek. Like Esther, I was surprised by Shrek's tenderness. So much of the movie is purposefully obnoxious and mean, but smaller moments, like Dragon's whimpering when Shrek and the gang escape the castle, and the general theme about loving even the most loathsome parts of yourself are sad and sweet and effective.
What was the worst part about re-watching Shrek?
Emma: Honestly it's a pretty ugly looking movie. And that's to be expected—the animators were working with a lot of very new technology and trying to translate an exaggerated cartoon universe into a three-dimensional environment, and for that they have my greatest respect. But all the human(oid) characters still move very stiffly and their facial expressions are very mask-like. It's uncanny, and makes Shrek a really interesting artifact of the early days when animation studios were still working out the kinks. (I'll never forget the Technical Goofs special feature on the DVD, where you can really see how tricky it is to animate something using computer code. You mess up one line, and suddenly Donkey is a little fuzzball.)
Esther: I have to largely agree with Emma. Shrek's greatest sin is looking bad. And not in the "beauty is on the inside" way the movie is about. When Fiona is in her human form especially she looks incredibly plastic-y. I think it's also easy to see where Shrek influenced other films for the worse, even when Shrek itself isn't so bad. You can draw a direct line from Shrek to so many quippy blockbusters, animated or otherwise.
Sadie: Yeah, they literally look like The Sims.
Leanne: I sadly now understand why anyone teenaged and older in 2001 would hate and/or not give a shit about Shrek. Eighty percent of the dialogue is shouting, Shrek is kind of a dick, the CGI is indeed hideous, and the "Hallelujah" drop is, frankly, kind of bad! I'm not a fan of the John Cale cover; they should have gone with my guy Jeff Buckley.
Dan: Yeah, Leanne, the cynicism of the movie, particularly the mean-spirited-ness of the jokes about Lord Farquaad, undermine some of the messaging and the sentimentality in the back half. There's a Hollywood slickness that grows tiring even though the movie is so short.
Should DreamWorks bring back Shrek and how should they do it?
Sadie: No. I want none of it. Shrek had his time. Puss and Boots even had his time! Let them live happily ever after.
Dan: I'm sorry, I want to see a "dark, gritty live-action reboot" of Shrek. You can picture it: Denis Villeneuve's Shrek starring Dave Bautista as ripped Shrek, Timothée Chalamet as cruel Lord Farquaad, Zendaya as conflicted Princess Fiona, and one of the horses from Michael Clayton as non-donkey Donkey. Let's make it happen.
Emma: Dreamworks should do a hard-boiled detective series except the detective is Shrek. Shrektective. Deshrektive. It would be great.
Esther: You know that episode of 30 Rock where Jack tries SeinfeldVision and inserts Seinfeld into every NBC show? That, but with Shrek.
Does Shrek hold up 20 years later?
Emma: The music still slaps.
Sadie: It does! I think overall it's a fun time! It is a kid's movie of a very specific time and place, but when you consider how many laughs and solid scenes there are—like Donkey's many one-liners or the Gingy interrogation—you have to admit it's a good kid's movie at that.
Leanne: I'm torn: Do I genuinely believe it holds up or is it purely driven by my nostalgia for Shrek and the weird bits of culture it's propagated? I appreciate its efficiency—it's a tight 90 minutes with no throwaway scenes—and it did still make me laugh out loud in moments, but overall, I dunno. I think I like the idea of Shrek more than I like Shrek the movie at this point.
Esther: Honestly, yes! I'm absolutely all in on Shrek. Despite the creaky animation and certain dated jokes, Shrek works largely because in the beginning it leans into the gross out beauty of Shrek's solitude. Team Shrek.
Dan: There's a reason we're doing Shrek week and not a series of stories on any number of other movies released in the summer of 2001. (Can you imagine Rat Race week? A day devoted to unpacking the cultural legacy of the David Duchovny alien comedy Evolution? Swordfish month?) Even if it maybe doesn't hit as hard as it did in 2001, Shrek is still Shrek.