You all remember DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek, right?
Of course you do. It was HUGE hit back in 2001, raking in $484 million at the box office (which may seem like a more modest hit nowadays but was a big deal back in the early 2000s), winning the the very first Oscar for Best Animated Feature (this was before Pixar took over the world for awhile), and spawning an abundance of merchandise and (to date) three sequels.
So why is that today, nobody seems to talk about it besides making fun of it?
Seriously, this movie has sparked a lot of Internet memes, some of them rather disturbing (don’t Google “Shrek is Love Shrek is Life”, and I might avoid looking up Shrek on Google Images as well), jokes about how it has an infinite number of sequels, cheap shots at all the merch it spawned, and questions as to whether or not any love for this film is genuine or ironic. A lot of posts in general on Shrek are sarcastic or, well, weird.
While most people can agree that the second film is actually good (thanks in large part to the “I Need a Hero” cover) and the last two films are bad, nobody can really seem to agree on whether the first film is a true classic or a parody onto itself.
I think I can call what happened to Shrek (and DreamWorks in General) the Shrek Effect.
When Shrek first came out, it was rather unique. You had a main hero who was ugly and crude and pretty much the opposite of Prince Charming and proud of it. You had a Princess who knew martial arts and could also be pretty crude and turned out to be happy with her ogre form. You had the two of them getting married and remaining ugly and living happily ever after in the swamp. You also had a lot of pop culture references, scathing parodies of Disney, a snarky overtone and lots and lots and LOTS of crude/rude/sexual humour that wouldn’t let up. In short, it was different, and people, at the time, loved it. So much so, that DreamwWorks decided to copy the formula for almost all their other films (mainly their CGI films, as their more original 2D films weren’t very successful), and other companies followed suit.
What happened was an oversaturation of crude, snarky, and almost bitter films that tried to be edgy and in-your-face. Whereas Pixar stuck with making heartfelt, down-to-earth movies, DreamWorks would create cynical counterparts (or rather, ripoffs) that would try to convey a positive message while being weird and sometimes gross. Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had been struggling to keep up in the 2000s after having ruled the animation roost during the 1990s, tried to ride DreamWorks’s coattails with films like Home on the Range and Chicken Little, which ended up hurting the company even more until they bought Pixar.
While DreamWorks did enjoy some success during this time, now they’re in serious financial trouble and their reputation has been forever tarnished. While Disney has managed to recover from their Shrek-inspired days (thank you, John Lasseter), and other companies have gained a new life, DreamWorks is still widely seen as a crude company that cribs inspiration from Pixar and makes too many sequels and merchandise to films that weren’t that great. The only franchise DreamWorks has that seems to be universally loved is How To Train Your Dragon, and even that series isn’t making enough. And, of course, the film that started it all is now ridiculed.
I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that, where other films failed, Shrek actually WORKED.
Shrek wasn’t just an asshole misanthrope for no reason; you understood how he felt he had to shut himself off because no one liked him. Fiona wasn’t just a princess who knew kung fu; she also had some hidden depth (mainly she thought she had to be beautiful, but realized it was better to be ugly and loved). Donkey wasn’t just a comic relief sidekick, he was Shrek’s truest friend and companion. And the movie has an important message of how looks don’t matter as much as what you are inside. But because of the neck-deep crassness, dated pop cultural references, constant middle finger to Disney, the excess of sequels and merchandise and other weird moments (mainly the fact that the Donkey had an intimate relationship with a dragon much bigger and less sentient than him), and how a lot of other DreamWorks films did almost the same thing, nobody really remembers Shrek that fondly anymore. It does have some loyal fans, but generally speaking, Shrek has become nothing more than a collective joke for a lot of people.
It’s kind of sad that while Shrek only hurt other companies for a brief period of time, it’s still hurting its parent company. While I do have some problems with DreamWorks Animation (I’ll probably get to that in another post), I don’t think it’s fair for them to be suffering just because they’re not allowed to move on for their early days. What’s really upsetting is that they feel like they have to make all their films squarely for young children now just to make a profit (though there is no excuse for them to do this because they feel only children are watching their films; Disney has proven people of all ages are flocking to see their animated works).
I refuse to see Shrek as nothing more than meme fodder, but I will unfortunately remember it as the film that helped and harmed the animation industry, especially DreamWorks. As it stands, Shrek will likely not be remembered the way DreamWorks would like it to be in animation history.