I’ll never forget the first time I saw Shrek. Not because it’s my favorite movie of all time or whatever, but because for children born in the early-to-mid 1990s it’s something of a cultural signpost. I remember being with my aunt and cousins in Indianola, Iowa, coming from the theater, listening to “Island in the Sun” by Weezer on the radio—off the band’s Green Album, which, coincidentally, came out three days before Shrek’s official theatrical release. On the way home, I remember stopping at Burger King and getting a Shrek-themed Big Kids meal, replete with green ketchup. The pre-9/11 years were weird and sublime.
One could say that I grew up with Shrek. When the sequel Shrek 2 was released in 2004, I was still a young preteen susceptible to the intoxicating burnish of mass media. Plus, the video game tie-in was excellent. By the time Shrek 3 rolled around in 2007, I was squarely in my “fuck you, dad” phase, and when Shrek Forever After was released in 2010, I was technically an adult with adult interests and adult responsibilities who would sooner be dead than caught waiting in line to see the Shrek swan song.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, The Guardian ran a revisionist retrospective on the first film that is frequently on-target and hilarious. Its main thesis seems to be that Shrek left a slew of embarrassingly bad imitators in its wake, supplanting Pixar’s signature earnestness with a toothless, pathologically topical irreverence as the industry standard. And for the decade or so after the first Shrek movie’s release, theaters really did seem inundated with CG children’s films that adopted this formula. Madagascar, Shark Tale, Happy Feet—pretty much any non-Pixar film from this era occupied the house that Shrek built.
Where the author of the Guardian piece loses me, however, is when he decries Shrek’s fairytale iconoclasm—or as he puts it, Shrek’s “destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time.” My question is: who are the adults hoping to “earnestly engage” with these classics, and what has Shrek done to make that engagement seem like a waste of time? If the argument is that Shrek has somehow made literary analysis of classic fairy tales purposeless, well, that’s an unhinged take: we’re earnestly engaging with the classics right now by virtue of engaging in this discourse. Or, is the argument that kids no longer “respect” the classic fairy tale canon because Shrek relentlessly satirizes it?
The latter argument is far more interesting to me, even if I feel like it overestimates the intelligence and cultural sentience of your average child. When I first saw Shrek I didn’t really think anything about its relationship to the “classic fairy tale canon”—I liked the donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy and I thought it was funny that he wanted to eat waffles.
Also, if we’re going to criticize Shrek for being outdated and sanitized, we really ought to take a closer look at some of those fairy tales it skewers. The original versions of the Brothers Grimm fairytales were rife with scenes of physical and sexual violence, not to mention virulent antisemitism. So much explicit and implicit antisemitism, in fact, that the Nazis appropriated Grimm imagery for propaganda purposes and essentially prescribed copies of Grimms Märchen to every German citizen. It goes without saying that subsequent translations have been cleaned up in this respect, but I’d argue this also qualifies as a “bad legacy”—I would rather show my hypothetical children a story in which an ogre voiced by the Austin Powers guy farts and burps than one that is more or less an allegory for Aryan supremacy.
That argument might seem a little disingenuous, so I’ll go out on this note—why are we even talking about this film in 2021, 20th anniversary or not? Portland State Vanguard editor-in-chief Justin Grinnell referred to the Guardian article as “presentism at its worst”—and that’s exactly what it is, even though I laughed the whole way through it. Shrek was a movie that children enjoyed because it featured talking animals and a Smash Mouth single, but I have never met a single adult member of functioning society who earnestly thinks it is a fantastic movie. You can approach any retrospective of any classic, canonized piece of media in this hyper intellectual, sophistic way—shit, give me enough time and dextroamphetamine and I’ll tell you about how Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron predicted the Iraq War.
To me, The Guardian’s Shrek piece says less about Shrek and more about the pallid state of pop culture journalism—the domain of fiercely intelligent yet terminally bored writers who are beholden to clicks and fabricated controversy. I doubt this guy even wanted to write about Shrek in the first place; I didn’t want to either.