Take yourself to
Shrek school and see how you do on this pop quiz.
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by DreamWorks Pictures
In 2001, two classics of 21st-century American cinema premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. One was a psychosexual exploration of a woman’s unstable, bifurcated identity as it manifests in a fantasy relationship, a searing indictment of the Hollywood dream factory and the promises it peddles; the other was
The former film, of course, was
Shrek . It grew up so fast. So much of what we now take for granted as standard family-movie fare was, in 2001, nearly unthinkable — or at the very least, hardly popular — prior to the surprise hit about a big stinky green man and his wise-cracking donkey sidekick. After seven decades of Walt Disney Animation more or less colonizing children’s animated cinema (and coming off what was arguably the House of Mouse’s strongest decade yet), DreamWorks stepped in as the new rival studio in town, a scrappy upstart ready to disrupt Disney’s monopoly.
DreamWorks was an underdog, betting its hopes (and fortunes) on a story about the
ultimate underdog: An agoraphobic ogre who becomes a reluctant hero to a hodgepodge of rejected fairy-tale creatures, despite how much the human villagers all hate him and how much he’s internalized their hatred. In the years predating Shrek, Disney had reclaimed its mojo by releasing an Oscar-winning slate of now-classics that harkened back to the studio’s groundbreaking fairy-tale-movie formula, spicing up its magic touch with some Broadway-indebted grandeur and polish. In 2001, Shrek ran headfirst in the opposite direction, leaning into Y2K postmodernism, pop-culture references, a precarious blend of arch irony and heart, and a genuinely staggering amount of poop and fart humor. At the time, Shrek’s recipe seemed risky, but all bets paid off big time for its believers; the movie became an overnight phenomenon, grossing nearly $500 million at the U.S. box office alone and yielding sequels, theme-park attractions, Party City birthday merchandise, video games, spinoffs, memes, and far, far too much green food.
Looking back on
Shrek 20 years later, with its legions of imitators obscuring the view, it’s easy to dismiss the movie as too crass and too catchphrase-y. But at the time, it was as critically embraced as it was a commercial success. Against expectations, it competed for the aforementioned Palme d’Or and justified the creation of — and won — the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category. It endures as a meme and as a franchise, but it deserves celebration as a film series. Shrek introduced a generation of kids to the comedy of Eddie Murphy, to the song “Hallelujah,” to the vast artistic potential of computer-generated animation. Like The Simpsons before it, Shrek supplied the nerdier among us with a crash course in 20th-century pop culture, sparking a desire to watch more, to seek out more. In the spirit of reveling in nerdy maximalism, we figure the best way to celebrate Shrek’s legacy on its 20th birthday is in the form of a …
We know we keep name-dropping that Palme d’O(g)r(e) entry, but it’s kind of a huge deal. Before
Shrek, the last American animated feature to debut in competition at Cannes was:
The source material was a William Steig children’s book, written and published in the author’s 80s. The name
Shrek is based, charmingly, on the Yiddish word for:
Is Shrek Jewish? Is the villagers’ attack on his swamp near the beginning of the film meant to be a pogrom? (It wouldn’t be the first in a Spielberg-produced children’s film.) The debate rages on. Speaking of Steven Spielberg, let's get into the studio rivalry of it all. Part of Shrek’s indelible, delicious uniqueness is that it is that rare sort of children’s movie, one running on the fumes of pettiness and spite. Jeffrey Katzenberg, known of late as Quibi’s Icarus-apparent, left Disney in 1993 after newly minted CEO Michael Eisner declined to appoint him his second-in-command, as was long assumed. Instead, Katzenberg started the fledgling DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, heading the animation division and (out of spite or competition — you choose) setting it up to compete with Disney and Pixar. Shrek directly pokes fun at Disney’s most beloved iconography: Fiona sings to birds and makes them explode with her Mariah-esque whistle tones; the lovebirds are whisked away in a magical onion coach. And so on. Nowhere is this more clear than in the scene in which Shrek and Donkey enter the Kingdom of Duloc, which packs as many Disney World potshots in as possible. Everyone remembers the “It’s a Small World”-inspired “Duloc is a perfect place” animatronic show. Maybe you even remember Donkey getting caught in the turnstiles and Shrek barreling through the switchback queue. But do you recall what themed parking area (another Disney World innovation) Shrek and Donkey enter from?
There’s even a widely held rumor that Katzenberg based the following character on Michael Eisner:
Within this underdog studio,
Shrek was the underdog project. Being assigned to Shrek was known as getting sent to the “ gulag,” with editing bays reportedly set up next to the Glendale office kitchens as a second thought. After years of Disney dominating the market with family-friendly offerings like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, not to mention problematic missteps like Pocahontas, DreamWorks gambled on fighting fire with ogre. But in the studio’s early years, prestige was the name of the game, and DreamWorks’ perceived A-team at the time was assigned to work on:
The already challenged production faced its biggest hurdle yet when the actor who was meant to play
Shrek — whom they had even modeled the character on — died tragically early. He was:
The role was recast with Mike Myers, and Shrek as we know him (grumpy, sarcastic, vaguely Scottish) was born. The buddy-comedy dynamic between Myers’s voice performance and Eddie Murphy’s struck a brilliantly funny tone, their banter imprinting itself on kids’ brains. To a certain subset of kids born in the 1990s and 2000s,
Shrek was a North Star of comedy and a shared reference point, matched in power and ubiquity only by its TV counterpart in turn-of-the-millennium animated absurdism, SpongeBob SquarePants. Shrek is the forever “other,” the persecuted and misunderstood outsider, the grump with a heart of gold (something something onions, something something layers). The Shrek films’ saturation with too many pop-culture references and jokes for just the parents in the audience has been criticized by some as a tiresome thorn, but to the kids whose heads those jokes flew over in 2001, it just means that Shrek was able to grow up with us. Murphy’s performance continues to be held up as a high mark of voice-over work; his was the first voice performance to ever be nominated for a BAFTA for acting. One trademark of the character is his penchant for breaking out into adult-contemporary, extemporaneous songs, mid-conversation. Which of these does Murphy not sing in the first Shrek film?
So much of
Shrek’s staying power is owed to its music. The pop- and rock-heavy soundtracks of Shrek and its sequels didn’t pander to young audiences, instead injecting the movies with emotional momentum without relying on Broadway-style “tell don’t show” lyrical storytelling. From the Proclaimers to Counting Crows, these albums are comprehensive samplers of Y2K culture and sold millions of copies. While taking an approach to its music that ran counter to Disney’s at the time, the early Shrek films managed to beat it at its own game. That original score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell remains transportive and romantic, its main theme one of the most instantly recognizable of the 21st century. The Fairy Godmother’s “Holding Out for a Hero” cover is as iconic a queer-coded villain musical number as anything Ursula the Sea Witch could pull out of her clamhole. And, of course, there’s “All Star,” by Smash Mouth, a pop-rock anthem that tied itself to Shrek’s identity as a snarky but approachable turn-of-the-millennium icon the moment he busted down that outhouse door in the film’s opening sequence. Both Shrek and “All Star” have enjoyed long lives as memes, a Z-llennial lingua franca for their ubiquity. “All Star” really was everywhere in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but only one movie that it was featured in was, in turn, also featured in Smash Mouth’s music video for the song. That movie was:
Although it’s something of a punch line now, “All Star,” like
Shrek, was critically acclaimed at its time of release. It made all of these music publications’ Best Songs of 1999 lists, except for ...
Shrek retained its popularity with families through home-video release, reportedly becoming the best-selling DVD of all time (at the time), with the bonus features proving especially popular. The Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance Party short at the end of the first home-video release really set the tone for decades of CGI kids’ fare to come, from Sing to Trolls, with its high-energy blend of radio hits. The Shrek 2 home-video release followed suit with Far, Far Away Idol, which featured an animated cameo by …
Shrek was a total phenomenon, making its mark on every corner of pop culture. In 2003, Universal Studios opened its Shrek 4-D attraction, which takes place directly following the events of the first film and bridging the narrative gap before Shrek 2, which hadn’t been released yet. When guests enter the attraction (which closed in Hollywood in 2017, but remains in operation in Orlando), it takes place in …
Shrek’s stylistic opposition to the House of Mouse carried some remarkably positive messages for kids, in a delightfully unforced way. It encourages kids (between swear words and references to “The Piña Colada Song”) to be critical media consumers, and to love yourself for all your lumps, bumps, and things that make you different. The movie’s twist on “true love’s kiss breaking the curse” remains Shrek’s greatest turn, the moment where its subversive wit and its surprising heart meet. Princess Fiona is large, green, happy, confident, fulfilled, loved, and in love by the end of the film, a "happily ever after" that no other major American animated film has ever properly afforded a female protagonist who isn’t thin and pretty and doe-eyed in the years since. "We wanted to demystify the stereotypes which fairy tales reinforce," co-director Andrew Adamson told a news conference at Cannes when the movie was first released. Shrek and Fiona are rare body-positive icons in children’s media, and their influence on fashion is … remarkably a thing. Which of these major Shrek fashion moments is made up?
Shrek 2 upped both the budget and the joke density of the first film. It boasted a budget of $150 million, and seemingly every dollar of that was put onscreen in the visual-gag-filled animated setting of Far, Far Away. Here, the first film’s satirical ethos was expanded upon with a Medieval fantasy-inflected send-up of Hollywood. Joan Rivers introduces Thumbelina and Sleeping Beauty on the red carpet. The Fairy Godmother’s billboard mirrors Angelyne’s. Later in the movie there’s a particularly eviscerating riff on Cops where knights plant catnip on Puss in Boots and Donkey yells “police brutality” as he’s slammed to the ground. Which one of these is not a business that appears in the background of Far, Far Away?
What type of puppy does the Fairy Godmother create for Fiona during her
Beauty and the Beast–inspired musical number? Shrek later appears to crush and possibly kill the puppy, but WikiShrek lists the character as alive (a photo of it can also be seen on Fiona’s mantel in Shrek the Third.)
Shrek 2 was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2005. It lost the Animated Feature prize to The Incredibles, and lost the Best Original Song award for the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love.” (Watch the band’s Oscars performance to see why.) Which of the other nominees won the award?
Throughout the 2000s,
Shrek was a merchandising hit. This was all well and good for toys and clothes, but proved to be a nightmare when it came to actual food that children ate. Which of these Shrek tie-in green abominations was not an actual thing we fed to kids?
By the time of
Shrek the Third, the voice cast had grown with an extensive roster of comic performers. Who didn’t voice a princess in Shrek the Third?
Which two Monty Python alumni have had major roles in
Shrek films ?
There is a photo in the official presidential archives of George W. Bush of a massive Shrek mascot being escorted into the White House with the help of Secret Service members in 2007. It has an
extremely menacing aura. Why was Shrek bombarding the White House?
In 2009, Regis Philbin appeared on
The Late Show With David Letterman dressed in full, elaborate Shrek drag, for no apparent reason other than to get a reaction out of David. Philbin had done a voice two years prior in Shrek the Third. What character did he play?
Although Katzenberg had previously announced that the
Shrek franchise would have five films, it ended its run, along with the decade, with 2010’s Shrek Forever After. In this conclusion, Shrek and Fiona are the parents to three ogre babies. Which one of these is not one of them?
By the end of the original
Shrek franchise, its cinematic universe had expanded enough for Antonio Banderas’s Shrek 2 breakout character Puss in Boots to receive his own eponymous spinoff. In 2011, DreamWorks staged a charming premiere screening in Los Angeles featuring Antonio Banderas and an audience full of cats in 3-D glasses. However, the film’s official world premiere took place …
Dozens (actual, literal dozens) of
Shrek-based video games have come out since the release of the first film. Which of these is not one of them?
Here’s a niche one:
Shrek the Musical (because of course it had a Broadway musical) was composed by Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the Broadway musicals Violet and Fun Home. All three of these shows — yes, even Shrek — feature a female protagonist harmonizing with at least one younger version of herself, played by a child actor. Why is this a thing? And why does it give us chills every time? It’s a very specific calling card and we’re not mad at it. In what order did these musicals come out?
The end of
Shrek's decade-long cinematic run was only just the beginning of its cultural legacy and continued relevance. There is an annual Shrekfest held every year in Wisconsin that bills itself as "a celebration of love and life," reclaiming the "Shrek Is Love Shrek Is Life" meme from its seedy 4chan origins. Google "Shrek wedding" and you'll see multiple photos of happy newlyweds in green body paint. There is no better indicator of how entrenched Shrek has become in American pop culture than the wide array of Shrek holiday specials that has been released on broadcast television and DVD. Which of these is not one of them?