Shrek 20th Anniversary collage
Composite by VICE Staff
Entertainment

A Cultural Evolution of 'Shrek', from Blockbuster Hit to Historic Meme

On the 20th anniversary of the original film, mega-fans, academics and 'Shreksperts' weigh in on its even more curious existence online.
May 18, 2021, 8:00am

“They’re a lot more extreme,” says 31-year-old Richard Cook, of the Shrek fans who aren’t him. He takes a sip from an enormous green mug, and a toothy, unsettling ogre looks me dead between the eyes. By day, Cook is a social media manager for an online bank. By night, he’s a self-described “fringe member” of the online community that adopted Shrek as one of the “Patron Saints of dank memedom”

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“The whole idea of being a Shrek mega-fan is a joke, right?” Cook continues. “Like, wouldn’t it be funny if you were really into Shrek? And you did that for a decade?” 

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Shrek was a cultural reset. It’s been 20 years since the smash hit first premiered at Cannes Film Festival (!) and won the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature (!!), beating Toy Story (!!!) in the process. Arriving at the tail-end of Disney’s 1990s heyday, this brash computer-animated comedy – starring Mike Myers as a Scottish ogre who’s constantly beset by misfit mythical creatures – was about as far from the childlike worlds of Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story as you could get. Instead, this “anti-fairytale” takes place in a sordid universe – a literal swamp – and is led by an unsociable and gassy protagonist.

“In Pixar films, the hero is usually likeable or stupid or excitable,” says Cook. “Shrek’s not a hero, he’s an antihero. The vibe he gives off is ‘CBA’, and he just wants to be left alone. He’s kind of a grouch – there’s something quite relatable in that.”

Shrek rapidly became the poster-beast of 21st century fatigue. The ultimate “mood” for an era in which the nihilism and the carefree optimism of the previous decade no longer applied. And perhaps the peevishness and underdogism of this inverted fairytale has something to do with its origins. 

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Shrek was released by DreamWorks, a company co-founded by former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had left the company in the mid-90s in something of a strop, after CEO Michael Eisner – a long-time friend of Katzenberg and, more importantly, his boss – failed to promote him following the death of the company’s president, Frank Wells.

“It doesn’t take much to read into the surface-level of parody,” says 28-year-old academic and self-determined “world-leading Shrekspert” Sam Summers, referring to the speculation that Shrek’s pint-sized antagonist Lord Farquaad was a dig at Eisner. But it wasn’t just Katzenberg who was ready to rip into Disney.

“I was nine when Shrek came out, which was a good age, because I liked fart jokes, but was also pop culturally savvy enough to get a lot of the more adult jokes,” says Summers. “I grew up with the Disney movies Shrek was having a go at, so I was ready to see them lampooned. Both the film industry and public were very ready to see them taken down a couple of pegs at the end of the 90s renaissance.”

Obviously, Shrek was a huge commercial success in its own right. Its continued dominance over the entire century speaks for itself: four films, a dozen video games, countless TV spin-offs, a three-issue comic book series, hundreds of increasingly deranged Instagram filters. Wander down the Southbank to get tickets for London’s most esteemed tourist attraction, Shrek’s Adventure!, or catch the Broadway musical adaptation, which ran from 2008 to 2010 for over 440 performances – streaming on Netflix now! However, 2021 also marks approximately a decade since a whole new wave of Shrek fandom began to emerge.

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Both Cook and Summers remember being reintroduced to Shrek around 2012 through ShrekChan, a 4chan-inspired imageboard that acted as the unofficial hub for Shrek lovers everywhere. It was a place for true fans to go deep, undisturbed by casual fair-weather punters; to laugh at and with their big green fave, and imagine the rich extent of his life beyond the screen. Some posts were innocuous – a screenshot from the film with a pithy one-liner, a pun riffing off a character name – but others took a distinctly darker turn.

On the 14th of January, 2013, a copypasta titled “Shrek Is Love, Shrek Is Life” was posted by an anonymous user on 4chan. “I was only nine years old. I loved Shrek so much, I had all the merchandise and movies,” the narrator tells us, explaining that he prayed to Shrek every night until, one evening, after an argument with his homophobic dad, the boy feels the presence of a powerful green ogre in his bedroom. The rest – well, see for yourself. 

“It’s a basic form of humour,” says Summers, who dedicated a chapter to the memefication of Shrek in his book, DreamWorks Animation: Intertextuality and Aesthetics in Shrek and Beyond. “The idea of marrying something that was made for children with something sexual and disturbing has been happening since the 1930s, when Mickey Mouse came out and people were producing pornographic images of him. Perhaps because Shrek is less innocent – he’s a grumpy bastard, he has a sex life, and the movies are at least superficially subversive – they had to go more extreme. It’s not just sex; it’s rape, and coercion, and child abuse.” 

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Shrek Is Love, Shrek Is Life has since become the blueprint for countless disturbing videos that YouTube has repeatedly tried to take down. It also marked the beginning of the end for ShrekChan, as the memification of Shrek started to take on a life of its own. People were encouraged to post variations that strayed far beyond canon (see: Shrek’s dark nemesis, Drek, who roams the planet of Orinion, conquered by Azazel and ruled by Lord Farquaad) – and, as the memes grew in strength, so did the community.

Posters on Reddit and 4chan were trying to out-weird each other, deeming themselves “brogres” – a name that, even in worship of everyone’s favourite ogre, was ripping into something else (in this case, the adult fans of My Little Pony, known as “bronies”). The meme version of Shrek became a spin-off of the original, with fans relying on just a few key traits to keep the mythology alive.

Shrekchan

Photo: ShrekChan (RIP)

In December of 2014, the creators of ShrekChan abruptly decided to shut the platform down. “The Shrek meme is dead,” they wrote, “and it’s time to stop trying to keep this going. It is inevitable and it has to happen at some point in time.”

It was a classic tale of selling out. What was underground was suddenly mainstream, and therefore done. But for the rest of the internet, it was just the beginning. By the mid-2010s, Shrek was the people’s icon, representing both the intensity and the nonsense of modern life. Along with scenes from The Simpsons, South Park and any other animation imbibed with adult themes, Shrek became the go-to figure for anyone looking to express feelings of irritation, cynicism and burnout. 

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In this climate, anything could be a Shrek meme. Something about being green? Sure. Something about social anxiety with just a subtle amount of FaceTune? Fine. A screenshot from the film with no context, gradually transforming Shrek’s face into Bob Marley’s for no reason? This is also a perfectly adequate Shrek meme. Merch that didn’t exist was created virtually in Shrek’s honour (Crocs, obviously); TikTok and Instagram now invite fans to make their own ogre-focused content with visual filters and soundtracks galore; and Smash Mouth – whose song “All Star” soundtracked the opening credits – have enjoyed a cultural relevance far beyond expectation for a holiday-shirt-and-hair-gel rock band from the 90s.

Meanwhile, a quick scroll through Twitter will often bring up at least one variation on that sheepish image of Shrek – eyebrows raised, lips nowhere to be found, as if to say: oop. Clearly, something that resonated with a small group of shitposters on ShrekChan had also resonated with something fundamental inside us all. 

“He’s anarchic, an agent of chaos, and a trickster,” Summers says of the most widely circulated version of dank king Shrek. “He pops up, enters into situations and fucks with people. He’s become this embodiment of internet culture.” 

“I was ten or 11 when the film first came out, so people of my age revisiting it circa 2011 would have been around 20. That’s the perfect age for creating content on the internet,” says Cook, who got his own time in the sun in July of 2017, when he tweeted: “Somebody OUGHTA GO BACK AND READ THE FIRST WORD OF MY TWEETS FOR THE LAST WEEK.” If you did, you’d find eight days of tweets which, when read from the 4th of July back to the 27th of June, spelled out every word of the first verse of “All Star” by Smash Mouth.

“That did really well and got lots of attention, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna make Shrek my thing,’” Cook says. “Shrek birthday cakes, T-shirts, bedsheets. If I saw a Shrek thing, I’d buy it. If the musical was playing, we’d see it. People buy me Shrek gifts for Christmas. I tried to do a five-minute standup set as Shrek for Halloween. I thought, ‘If I can exploit this thing for my own personal social media credence, then I will.’”

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It’s a similar story for Summers, who ended up doing his PhD on Shrek. “I’m not a lifelong Shrek-head,” he tells me, weeks before announcing that he’s hosting the world’s first academic conference on Shrek later this year, “but I became very interested in it as a cultural product when I was 18 and thinking about my career.”

After studying English Literature and developing an interest in the history of animation, Summers had a renewed interest in the classics – Disney, Looney Tunes – but all that stuff had been written about ad-infinitum, and Shrek hadn’t. “Your PhD proposal has to be an original contribution of knowledge,” he explains. “At the time, Shrek was not considered to be this dumb trashy thing. It was a watershed moment. It was so much cooler and funnier than what animation is supposed to be.” 

“Sometimes I wonder why I did a degree that let me write absolute shit,” adds MA journalism student Isla Whateley, author of the essay This Is My Swamp Now: A Marxist Analysis of Shrek. “I now use it for clout on dating apps. It didn’t even get a very good mark, I just did it for a joke.”

The force of irony seems to be stressed in everyone’s decision-making, but it’s hard to believe that the last two decades of collective obsession with Shrek have all been in service of an enormous “bit”. The Shrek fandom evolved throughout the early-2010s, as the love for our green king took a hard left turn away from Shrek as a piece of cinema and towards Shrek as a strange concept of its own. In 2014, a group of friends based in Madison, Wisconsin hit the accelerator.

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It “started as an internet joke, but people believed in it so hard that it became real,” reads the description for Shrekfest, an annual all-day celebration of “love and life”, where fans are invited to a park in Madison to pin the tail on Donkey, eat onions, watch Shrek and take part in a costume contest.

Milwaukee-based video editor Grant Duffrin had teamed up with a few friends under the moniker 3GI to make their dream – and that of thousands of fans, heartbroken that an initial Facebook event for a five-day Shrek festival was, sadly, a joke – a reality. What’s most intriguing about the team behind Shrekfest, though, is just how much – or rather, how little – they care about Shrek.

“They’re somewhat ambivalent towards it, they just like to do stuff,” says Summers, who spoke to 3GI for his book. “For them, it’s a joke that snowballed, but they’re happy to go along with it. Whether you’re doing it sincerely or ironically, ritualistically rewatching Shrek is part of the joke.” 

Shrekfest 2019 3GI.png

Photo: Shrekfest 2019, via YouTube

Naturally, the logical step forward in the tradition of rewatching Shrek was to remake Shrek. Enter: Shrek Retold (2018), a 90-minute scene-by-scene reconstruction of the original film undertaken by 200 contributors and produced by 3GI. You can skim through the meticulous Excel spreadsheet of collaborators, which divvies up every single scene and music cue among different animators, fans, musicians and Shreksperts – many of whom, like 3GI, got involved on the basis of Shrek as a meme above all else. A handful of contributors preface their scenes by confessing that, after all this time, they finally had to actually watch Shrek to figure out how to recreate it.

There’s something about the stubborn rewatching, repurposing and reimagining of Shrek in all its forms that has been the fandom’s lifeblood – for those who sincerely worship at the ogre’s altar, and those devoted to making fun of it. At the time of writing, Shrek Retold has almost 7 million views on YouTube. A follow-up, Shrek Retold 2, was released the following year. And, if you were worried the pandemic might have threatened the annual ‘palooza, you can catch up with a full eight-hour stream of Shrekfest 2020, which went completely digital for the first time. 

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“As a child it wasn’t ironic, but then when it became a meme it became ironic, and then it became unironic because I rewatched the films and do really enjoy them,” Whateley says, summarising her own relationship to the Shrek franchise. “The films are a massive comfort for me. I’m autistic, so sometimes it’s just so much easier for me to watch something I’m really familiar with, rather than new media I haven’t seen before.” 

Whateley is far from alone here. Letterboxd notes that Shrek 2 ranks among the top ten most obsessively rewatched films on the platform, coming in at a cool 7.9 rewatches on average. “There’s a genuine admiration for Shrek as a piece of media,” Whateley adds. “But over the years I’ve deviated from the really online culture and more towards general appreciation. I got too into memes in my early twenties, and then you learn there’s maybe a bit more to life.”

“How many layers of irony are people operating on? Is it stupid? Was it part of something else?” Cook agrees, adding that he’s now distancing himself from the film. “It’s so murky and convoluted – I can’t trace the ancestry back. But I’ve been doing this for a decade now. I’m wasting my life.” 

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In 2021, Shrek has long been assimilated into the fabric of the internet. Rather than being a notable trend or cultural obsession, the film exists, as Summers puts it, “in the background of our psyche”. We have embraced Shrek as a symbol because he reflects the values we have grown to champion online – anarchy, irony, chaos and the grotesque. Animation had been working with postmodern ideas of meta-narratives and breaking the fourth wall long before Katzenberg got angry at Disney, but there’s a certain bitterness to Shrek’s modern self-awareness that dovetails with the language of the internet.

“The internet has been dictated, to an extent, by millennials, who colonised these spaces quite quickly and coloured them with this particular sense of humour – and maybe we adopted that from texts like Shrek,” Summers suggests.

The future legacy of this particularly meta-movie, however, is about to get complicated. Looming on the horizon is the unavoidable fact that Universal bought DreamWorks in 2016, and will, one day, release a fifth Shrek film. Scroll through DreamWorks’ prolific, family-friendly Twitter feed, and all you’ll find are sincere and wholesome appreciations of all the characters in the extended Shrek universe. And sure, it’s nice to see Donkey eating waffles! A Smash Mouth-approved valentine! Just a plain appreciation of ogres with literally no agenda! But two decades on from the first film, 11 years since the fourth, and ten since Puss in Boots – the last spin-off in the franchise – the question is: where can Shrek go from here? 

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“The cultural purpose that Shrek once served is now being served by the memes, by the things that exist outside of the studio system, which are reapplying exaggerated versions of the same strategies that Shrek applied to Disney, to Shrek,” Summers explains. “They are Shreking Shrek, and therefore they are more genuinely interesting, subversive and radical than anything DreamWorks could actually put out. The memefication of Shrek – even though it might not align with DreamWorks’ values – is keeping Shrek alive as a figure. They have a vested interest in letting this continue under the radar.” 

Even stylistically, it’s difficult to modernise Shrek without ruining the charm. In 2020, Shrek became the only animated film of the 21st century to be preserved by the US Library of Congress, formally recognised as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry – and it’s there for a reason. The intricacies of computer animation presented to audiences today are exquisite by comparison, but Shrek was among the first to do it. Many DreamWorks employees have referred to the project as the “gulag”, because it required so much more work than the hand-drawn masterpieces they had expected to work on, like the studio’s debut The Prince of Egypt. 

Even so, Shrek had actively tried to be ugly. “I felt like we were on the frontier every day,” the film’s production designer James Hegedus told Inverse, adding that this sense of freedom came from the fact that, at the time, DreamWorks didn’t have a signature style. Storyboard artist Chris Miller describes Shrek as “the ugly sister” at the studio. It’s hard to see how a Shrek 5 could play on that same crude aesthetic and sense of rebellion without looking crap, or losing the entire point of its appeal. 

“You’ve got to actively work hard to understand the context and experience [Shrek] in a way that someone would have experienced it at the time,” Summers says of the cringe that older fans might feel when trying to introduce the next generation to this bizarre staple of our youth. “I think a kid watching Shrek now would find that it’s not very funny, because it’s not as extreme as all the various forms of humour that are at your fingertips on the internet every single day. It’s another reason why, if they make Shrek 5, it needs to be radical in a way that’s going to recapture it.” 

Shrek Retold 2018

Photo: A scene from Shrek Retold, via YouTube

One thing is certain: whenever Shrek 5 is released, the fans who have kept it in the cultural consciousness for all these years will keep trucking along regardless. As with so many other online trends, the focus of Shrek’s legacy is less on the root of the phenomenon, and has very little to do with its meaning or message. It’s about how far something can be taken, and for how long. It’s about keeping a joke running until there is no oxygen left and its only option is to die. While the original “brogres” may have moved on, a few diehard posters have stuck their flag in the ground.

“There was a meme going around that was like, ‘Roses are red, Shrek is green, Shrek 5 arrives in 2019,’” Whateley remembers. “It never did, but because Shrek was such a big meme thing and such a huge part of our childhood, I don’t see that much changing in terms of the fans.” 

“It’s the symbol of it, for me,” Cook concludes, placing his mug down on the coffee table. “This mug is funny to me. It’s horrendous. It’s so impractical. I can’t put it in the dishwasher. I can barely drink out of it.” 

Meme culture reaches a point where you either cancel it (ShrekChan) or it cancels you (as last year’s Pepe the Frog documentary Feels Good Man shows, with the worrying moment in which the alt-right adopted the sad little frog as their mascot). Some cursed videos aside, the mood is still light enough to keep revisiting Shrek – but why? What drives people to keep rallying around a 20-year-old piece of pop culture, to want to reconstruct a film they haven’t even seen, to inconvenience their ability to drink coffee in their own home? What’s the ultimate punchline?

“Just commit to the bit as high as you possibly can, because one day it’ll pay off somehow,” Cook says with a smile, although one that’s not quite big enough to convince me he’s actually joking. “Nobody’s got a long-term game plan here, but: a Shrek funeral, I guess.”

@ella_kemp