The Troubled Life and Brilliant Legacy of Shrek

It’s weird to think that, not that long ago “Shrek” was a synonym for failure.

The 2001 DreamWorks classic animated fairytale flick is basically the film that defined my generation of movie-goers; I could lean out of my living room window right now and bellow “SOME-” and within three seconds, some millenial passerby would have responded with “-BODY ONCE TOLD ME” because we all imprinted on Shrek as kids and never got over it.

So it’s odd to consider the fact that Shrek was such a mess for such a long time. It’s twenty years old now (don’t make me think about what that means for my age, ugh), and honestly, it still feels like something of a miracle that it got out there in the first place. During production of the movie, it became something of a dumping ground for animators who hadn’t managed to cut it at more respectable projects like contemporary animated classic The Prince of Egypt, turning the very title into the verb for that failure: end up working on this back-end project, and you’d been “Shrekked”.

Not really a surprise, though, when you look at the production that led to this movie’s release. Based on a children’s book by William Steig, Shrek was put into development in 1995, and the six years between its inception and its release were about as messy as they come. Before the final animation style was settled upon, a year and a half was poured into a practice run for a live-action animation blend – which was scrapped and had to be started over after producer Jeffery Katzenberg declared it too ugly for the fairytale story they were trying to tell. Even when production actually started on the style the studio wanted to move forward with, casting proved problematic; a number of actors were cycled through for leading ogre Shrek, including Chris Farley and Nicholas Cage, before Mike Myers was settled on as the right choice.

But the script had been written for Chris Farley, and had to be entirely retooled for Myers’ involvement in the movie; after an initial round of recording sessions for Shrek, he had to re-record the whole movie with a new accent once it was decided that a Scottish one made more sense for the character. A fractious relationship with the Disney corporation (rumour has it that Katzenberg based Shrek’s villain, Lord Farquaad, off Michael Eisner, then-CEO of Disney) kept Shrek being advertised through a number of Disney outlets, and, if you had asked anyone on the eve of Shrek’s release twenty years ago what was going to come of this film – I don’t think anyone would have guessed that this messy production would have given rise to perhaps the most influential piece of animated cinema of the last few decades.

Do I have to tell you how great Shrek is? If you’re reading this, like me, chances are you have some serious nostalgia wrapped up in the movie, nostalgia that, it could be argued, might render it difficult to see the film for the actual qualities it presents. But I still remember seeing this movie for the first time as a kid, and how totally anarchic, brilliant, and instantly memorable that it was; the animation still looks gorgeous, and at the time, it was downright stunning. Much-imitated, the balance of actual fantasy story with sharp, witty little real-world references makes this a gift for kids and adults alike; I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the course of my life, and there are still tiny little detail, witty little asides that make it a gift each and every time. The soundtrack is flawless, the voice acting is perfect, and the moral of the story – it’s who you are on the inside that counts, you farting ogre – is simple but genuinely lovely. Truly great family films are hard to come by and even harder to make, but Shrek finds that balance between adult and child and sticks the landing, every time. I can still remember coming out of the cinema with my parents and my brother with all four of us talking over one another about what we liked best, and that’s a near-impossible thing to pull off.

Shrek, soon after it’s release, shed the synonym for failure. It became the first-ever movie to win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and the first animated film to get a nod for best screenplay, too, breaking animated movies into mainstream critical recognition in a major way. It swarmed best-of-year lists, and later, best-of-decade and best-of-century ones, too. The critical response at the time was generally excellent (and I’m sure everyone who didn’t like it is thoroughly enjoying their time in clown college now, anyway), and it spawned a series of sequels, as well as a stage musical, spin-offs, shorts, tie-ins of every shade and colour (well, mostly green, but you get me).

But my favourite part about the legacy of Shrek is the sheer love with which most people who saw it as kids have for it in their hearts. Maybe because it really felt like the little film that could, an unexpected and undeniable masterpiece that cemented DreamWorks’ place in the cinematic pantheon. Maybe because of the way it parodied fairytales, giving us a meta-narrative to something that we had been exposed to for years, bringing us kids in on the joke in a way that pretty much nothing else had in the contemporary mainstream before that point. Maybe because it’s just funny and inventive and charming and generally sweet in a way that so many kid’s films fail to achieve; saccharine, yes, genuinely heartfelt? That’s another thing entirely. But there’s no denying that Shrek landed something for a generation of millenials that sticks with us to this day; it’s a wonderfully warm place to return in our collective pop-culture memories, and there’s not many movies that can lay claim to something like that. So, here’s to Shrek, and another twenty years of the finest fairytale flick ever made.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Polygon)

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