What Animation Hell Hath 'Shrek' Wrought?
'Shrek' upended the standards of animated movies, and not necessarily in good ways.
There is life before Shrek, and there is life after Shrek. Animated movies looked and felt a certain way before Shrek—typically flat, generally earnest, largely Disney-made—and they became crude and mouthy, celebrity-packed, pop-culture reference-laden, and computer-generated affairs on a runaway train after Shrek.
For this, you can thank the early era of DreamWorks Animation, now a subsidiary of Universal's Illumination, the studio responsible for the blight that is the Minions-verse, among other properties. Before Shrek, there was a floundering DreamWorks, burning through cash and paying the bills by syndicating the ABC sitcom Spin City, according to a passage from Nicole LaPorte's fascinating reported history of the company, The Men Who Would Be King, and afterward there was a resurgent DreamWorks, going on to make other hit animated franchises like Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and Madagascar, saved by the Hail Mary that was Shrek.
Before Shrek, the Disney Renaissance was still thriving following the studio's late-'80s return to storybook musical 2D feature films after enduring the nearly 20-year slump of what's called Disney's Bronze Age, highlighted by the likes of The Aristocats and The Great Mouse Detective. The company had also been dabbling in more experimental animation with tech bought from Pixar, and had become a production partner on Pixar films in the '90s until Disney acquired the studio outright in 2006. Shrek, which symbolically defaced a book of fairy tales in its opening minutes, was DreamWorks' calculated effort at derailing the tidy track Disney had laid with hit after hit since 1989's The Little Mermaid, and gave the company's animation wing, which had launched three years earlier with Antz (itself a direct and largely unsuccessful swipe at Pixar/Disney's A Bug's Life, released two months later), its first critical and box-office megahit, thus kicking off Life After Shrek with a hard kick to an outhouse door and the first three notes of a throaty "someBODY—."
Shrek wasn't the first fully CGI film—that title belongs to a little movie called Toy Story that had Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as its stars—but its ugly birth in training a computer to make an ogre "humanlike," given eyebrows that can wince and a face full of pores, and his world, down to blades of grass, "realistic" in context to itself unleashed an inescapable legacy. Thankfully, the quality of computer-generated imagery has vastly improved since 2001 (though the uncanny valley of too-glossy eyeballs and waxy skin texture is never far off), and will likely only continue to get more freakishly lifelike (see: deepfakes). For animated films, however, Shrek shook things up beyond encouraging animators to tinker with new technology—it established a DreamWorks house style and set the template for an industry-wide tone of spoofy movies marketed toward children while winking at adults, starring the kind of famous-actor slurry seemingly straight out of a free-association brainstorm on "famous actors."
Shrek is the harbinger of (soon-to-be) multiple Boss Baby films, a laundry list of animated fairy tale parodies, the Minions, more Shrek (despite diminishing returns that might have finally dried up), and it wouldn't be very tough to trace a line from it to arguably the most cynical animated property of all time, 2017's The Emoji Movie. Are we nearing the end of Shrek's 20-year reign of terror? Probably not. But here's the story of how it began.
Before Shrek: What is a Shrek?
To fully understand Shrek as a product of spite, we'll need to look back to 1994 and the formation of DreamWorks SKG, a three-way partnership between director Steven Spielberg, ousted Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music mogul David Geffen. The company was the Quibi of the mid-'90s: over-hyped, generously funded (soon including a $500 million investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, maybe a bit jealous of Steve Jobs' involvement in Pixar), backed by incredible talent, and "so cutting edge [the founding partners] couldn’t quite articulate as yet all that the new enterprise would entail," wrote LaPorte. "But it would all come together." As one might expect from such a cavalier statement, it did not.
Envisioned as an expansive multimedia entertainment hub, each man owned a realm: Spielberg helmed the live-action studio and considered the video game arm, DreamWorks Interactive, a passion project until it was sold off to Electronic Arts in 2000; Geffen took music, signing the Shrek-essential artists Rufus Wainwright and The Eels, and selling DreamWorks Records to Interscope in 1999; and Katzenberg oversaw DreamWorks Animation with the "guiding principle," wrote LaPorte, of plotting revenge.
What had happened to Katzenberg, who's credited for the billion-dollar success of The Lion King, at Walt Disney Pictures was something of a coup. He was meant to be the successor to Frank Wells, Disney's president and COO, but then Wells died unexpectedly in a helicopter crash. CEO Michael Eisner, Katzenberg's boss of almost 20 years, took over and kicked his subordinate to the curb, inciting a box office skirmish between Disney and Katzenberg's new upstart DreamWorks and a tense, years-long litigation over an unpaid bonus.
Katzenberg's main priority in DreamWorks Animation was to be the anti-Disney, even though he had poached plenty of Disney animators by promising a home for boundless creativity and no hierarchy in the studio's early 'no titles' practice—along with an eye-popping paycheck. This also marked the early days of attempting to make an adaptation of William Steig's children's book Shrek!, optioned by producer John H. Williams. Katzenberg hired a team of recent grads—J.J. Abrams, Rob Letterman, Loren Soman, and Andy Waisler—who called themselves the Propellerheads and were messing with 3D motion-capture animation, and challenged them to make it for no more than $20 million. (Katzenberg's first DreamWorks pet project, the 2D adult-ish and biblical The Prince of Egypt, intended to be the animation studio's first big blockbuster, had a budget of $70 million.)
It's in this era of trying to hack the never-before-used (at least, for more than a minute or two of video) and increasingly expensive tech while meeting Katzenberg's hopes for an "edgy" movie that working on Shrek became known, famously, as the Gulag, or being "Shreked." "If you failed on Prince of Egypt… you were sent to the dungeons to work on Shrek," an animator told LaPorte. As they played around with what Shrek should look like, with Chris Farley set to be the voice of the green ogre as inspiration, the vision, which was never particularly clear in the first place, splintered. The 40-odd person team was disbanded when the initial assessment was handed down: "It looked terrible, it didn’t work, it wasn’t funny, and [Katzenberg] didn’t like it."
Shrek remained in this peripheral space until DreamWorks partnered with a pioneer of computer animation and creator of the CGI Pillsbury Dough Boy, Pacific Data Images. This was meant to compete directly with the Disney/Pixar team-up that created Toy Story in 1995, the first-ever computer generated feature film, and its sequel in 1999, which would become its second-highest grossing movie after The Lion King. According to The Men Who Would Be King, Katzenberg's newest goal was making DreamWorks' first CGI picture, Antz, as quickly as possible to beat Disney's A Bug's Life to the box office in 1998, which they did by two months. (The pettiness!)
Improving on the technological frameworks invented for Antz, animators jumped over to work on the struggling Shrek. After some staff shuffling, Andrew Adamson, a special-effects director, and Vicky Johnson, a storyboard artist, took over directing duties. The PDI animators—who Mike Myers calls "mole people" in the DVD bonus features—went to work at the movie's animated realism, creating tools termed "shapers" that would be the basis of the cast's "human" features; each main character had 500 control points in their face that could reflect every tiny movement, and bodies were rendered in three layers so that the skeleton, muscles, and skin would look "natural." According to the production notes, the team built out a "dollhouse" of different features for 450 potential characters to serve as the movie's extras. Finally, finally, things were going right for the languishing Shrek.
"'Jeffrey, do you think people will know what a Shrek is?'" Harry Gregson-Williams, the movie's composer, recalled to Inverse of his question to Katzenberg as production was nearly finished. "He said, 'Well, no they won't at first, but if you look at many of the most successful animations in the history of animation, their title tells you absolutely what it is.'" Soon enough, the mononym would make itself known, loud and clear.
Year 0: Here is Shrek
One of Shrek's best "fun facts" is that it competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the first time an American animated film had been selected since 1953, against David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, and Joel and Ethan Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There. Reports from that May 12 screening seem like the audience experienced a collective brain glitch in trying to process what they were watching; for the first 10 minutes, nobody laughed. "As soon as Shrek jumped in the water and farted, I know I put my head in my hands," producer Aron Warner recalled to LaPorte. Similarly, director Vicky Jenson remarked, "Here we are, sitting in tuxedos and evening gowns, wearing borrowed jewels, and everyone’s watching Shrek take a poot in the water." By the end, however, it had received a standing ovation, but it did not win the prestigious award.
After three long years of relatively chilly reception to DreamWorks Animation's movies—most disastrously, the box-office bomb that preceded Shrek, The Road to El Dorado—Katzenberg could finally stick it to Disney when Shrek premiered to the public on May 18, 2001. In its first weekend, it would make $42 million, the studio's strongest debut to that point, and would go onto gross $484 million worldwide, a record that would eventually be surpassed by both Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third. Reviews were mixed, but largely positive, though it barely mattered for the children, myself included, who swarmed theaters to giggle at fart jokes from recognizable voices. (Austin Powers! Dr. Dolittle! The lady from The Mask! The alien man from 3rd Rock from the Sun!) For kids of a certain age, Shrek was it, baby, and good luck to the parents who had to sit through repeat listens of the soundtrack or hear "do you know… the Muffin Man??" over and over and over and over.
Among the pools of mud and moats of lava—which used PDI's refined Fluid Animation System to glip and glop as particular states of matter should—was the movie's subtext as a big "fuck you" to Disney. The kingdom of Duloc resembles a Disney theme park—its castle walls, bobble-headed kitsch and annoying little songs, and roped off ticket lines that Shrek walks straight through—ruled by the totalitarian Lord Farquaad, specifically designed to look like Katzenberg's enemy, Michael Eisner. "Farquaad is short because Jeffrey insisted he be short," Shrek co-screenwriter Ted Elliott told LaPorte. Farquaad rounding up subversions of "fairy tale trash poisoning his world" to dump in Shrek's swamp was hardly a mistake either. A gingerbread man with a rebellious streak? A magic mirror that talks like a gameshow host?? Get out of here, Disney would never. "Nothing is sacred; every fairy tale gets roasted," quoted Aron Warner in the production notes.
So, too, are the main characters counters to traditional Disney heroes, sidekicks, and love interests. Shrek is an ugly guy, not a handsome and noble knight, and he himself acknowledges that he's "no prince charming." Donkey is quite literally a jackass, something that Eddie Murphy thought his kids would get a kick out of, and starts a (forbidden, cursed) relationship with a lady dragon one hundred times his size. Princess Fiona, with her whip-like braid and bug-eating tendencies, was positioned to upend the mold of the traditional Disney princess, nearly always a damsel-in-distress type in need of A Man to rescue her from evil, given the agency to stomp off wherever she damn well pleases—she's the one who chooses to wait for her prince in the dragon's tower. (How successful Shrek actually was to this end is maybe not so compelling in hindsight.)
In continuing to gain a foothold in popular culture, Shrek would be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2002 Oscars, a new category that Katzenberg directly campaigned for, according to LaPorte. "It wasn’t hard to understand why: an Oscar win not only boosted box-office grosses, but justified success like nothing else in Hollywood," she wrote. "No one understood this better than Katzenberg, who had never been directly responsible for a golden statuette." Here, Shrek competed against Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Pixar's Monsters, Inc.; this time, it won.
After Shrek: The Shrekoning
Besides more Shrek—a franchise that now includes four Shrek movies and a rumored fifth that may or may not ever happen, one existing Puss in Boots spinoff and another slated for 2022, a handful of short films and specials, a bunch of video games, and a Broadway musical—the blast zone of Shrek spread across most of the animation world, pulling studios like Sony, Blue Sky (RIP), and Nickelodeon into its maw. In his new book Dreamworks Animation: Intertextuality and Aesthetics in 'Shrek' and Beyond, animation historian and theorist Sam Summer coins the ripple effect of Shrek "the Shrekoning," indicating a shift toward satire, parody, and pastiche in these types of movies. Though its influence would not be immediately apparent—animated features, after all, take years to make—it signaled a new set of expectations for children's movies that would surface over time.
"Shrek didn't remake fairy tales single-handed; it captured, and monetized, a long-simmering cultural trend," James Poniewozik, now at the New York Times, wrote for Time in 2007, just after Shrek the Third came out, noting that send-ups of this genre certainly existed before 2001 in movies like The Princess Bride (1987) or even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but it shot the idea into the animation world. "This is the new world of fairy tales: parodied, ironized, meta-fictionalized, politically adjusted and pop-culture saturated." For example, there's Hoodwinked!, a 2005 take on Little Red Riding Hood as a criminal investigation starring the likes of Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, Xzibit, and Andy Dick; and 2006's Happily N'Ever After, set in a Shrek-like generic Fairy Tale Land (that's literally what it's called), with voice work from Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Patrick Warburton, Sigourney Weaver, and, additionally, Andy Dick. By the time these movies came out, DreamWorks' founding partners had sold their once-experimental and ambitious start-up to Viacom. (Spielberg would reboot Indiana Jones; Katzenberg would continue to make movies and eventually started the short-lived short-form video app Quibi in 2020; Geffen turned to art, amassing one of the world's most valuable collections.)
Shrek's reach extends beyond fairy tale stories, of course; marketing major animated movies on its celebrity cast is now an industry norm. Disney can claim first dibs on that practice—pushing Aladdin on the star power of the late Robin Williams (despite the actor stipulating that he would only be the Genie if Disney didn't do that)—and Pixar, along with Disney, loaded up Toy Story not only with then-reigning consecutive Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks and TV megastar Tim Allen but a fanciful cast of supporting actors like Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, and John Ratzenberger, but DreamWorks raised the bar, beginning with Antz, featuring the voices of Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, and arguably perfected it with Shrek. The vocal casting of Shrek is flawless. It's hard to imagine a world in which Zendaya is Meechee, LeBron James is Gwangi, and Danny DeVito is Dorgle, or Sir Patrick Stewart voices the Poop Emoji in The Emoji Movie, without this precedent. And, like Pixar's early movies, Shrek let the world know that computer-generated animation wasn't merely a shiny new thing to tinker with once and toss away; it was the industry's future.
DreamWorks Animation's "house style" post-Shrek is evident when you zoom out on a selection of its filmography since, nearly all of them CGI: Shark Tale (2004), in which Martin Scorsese voices a porcupine fish with powerful eyebrows; the first Madagascar (2005), starring Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith as anthropomorphic zoo animals; Bee Movie (2007), Jerry Seinfeld's "bee" yourself kids movie now considered an ironic masterpiece of the internet era; Kung Fu Panda (2008), employing Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, and others as animal martial artists; fast-forwarding a bit, Boss Baby (2017), casting Alec Baldwin as the suit-wearing baby in question, and Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel as his parents; and, good god, Despicable Me (2010), sitting atop the list of most profitable animated franchises of all time, with Steve Carrell doing a funny voice to a horde of yellow, ba-na-na obsessed gremlins who speak gibberish and whose sole purpose is to facilitate mayhem.
There's so much more to say, so much more to list, but explaining Shrek as an adult, much like watching Shrek as an adult, is a tiresome endeavor requiring a large evidence board to keep track of its branching lineage drawn from its jokes, needle drops, artistry, cast, pop-culture nods, and beyond. It feels like a blessing when an animated film breaks from the cranky eye-rolling Shrek established, like the new and lovely The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which is groundbreaking in its own right, and, sure, plenty of movies have come out concurrently to Shrek and its ilk that has no interest in engaging on that level. But where would we be without Shrek? Who can say, but it surely isn't here. Anyway, Minions: The Rise of Gru is out in 2022.