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The Agony and the Shrekstasy: The Unlikely Legacy of America's Favorite Ogre

When "Shrek" first came out in 2001, it was hailed as a revolutionary outsider. Now it's the largest animated franchise in the world—and a running joke on the Internet. How did this happen?

by Jonathan Parks-Ramage
Apr 22 2016, 7:00pm

Photo via Getty Images

In 1990, Shrek was just a grotesque line drawing, a little known two-dimensional ogre that occupied the pages of William Steig's children's book Shrek! If he was going to make it in Hollywood, Shrek needed to get some work done—a little CGI lip plump, some digital fillers, and maybe a 3-D face-lift. Shrek was just plain ugly, and in Los Angeles even the ugly need to be cute.

The cutening would come, but Shrek would have to be patient; Rome wasn't built in a day, and it took years to construct Heidi Montag. For Shrek, the process would last an entire decade, starting with Steven Spielberg's decision to option William Steig's book in 1991. Often during those ten long years, it seemed possible that Shrek would never make his big-screen debut. But good things come to beasts who wait: Shrek was a smash hit upon its 2001 release and eventually became the foundation of a 3.5 billion dollar empire.

Yes, you heard me right: 3.5 billion dollars—and that's from box office sales alone, not counting money from merchandise and endorsements. Shrek is the most successful animated franchise in movie history. Now, 26 years after his original conception, as Shrek prepares for a fifth film, we must consider his new identity: mass media phenomenon. This is the story of how a sweet monster becomes an international sensation, how a franchise gains momentum in the global marketplace, and how an endearing character goes from inspiring childlike wonder to inspiring the purchase of copious merchandise.

Shrek and Donkey. Image via Flickr.

"The child is the hope of humanity. If children are going to change the world, they have to start off optimistically. I wouldn't consider writing a depressing book for children," William Steig stated in an interview for Children's Books and Their Creators.

Out of Steig's many volumes of children's literature, Shrek! in particular inspires a subversive hope: it pushes kids to question the moral and sexual subtexts of fairy tales they've been fed their entire lives. Instead of undergoing a Beauty and the Beast-esque transformation set to the sounds of Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, Shrek learns to embrace his own hideousness and finds himself an equally grotesque ogre bride. They get a dragon to oversee their nuptials (another villain-reversal) and live freakily-forever-after. In the book, Shrek was an outsider-turned-hero who taught kids it was OK to be different. But could Shrek's sense of Steig-infused hope survive in Hollywood?

"People see me and they go, 'Help! A big, stupid, stinky, smelly, ugly ogre! I'm so scared!' And they judge me before they even know me." These lines were spoken by Chris Farley during a voiceover session for an earlier incarnation of the film adaptation of Shrek, the production of which was halted by Farley's tragic death in 1997. In the wake of Farley's death, the film was thrown back into development turmoil. At the time, Shrek was a dark, 2-D animated comedy set in the Middle Ages—tonally and aesthetically very different from the movie we know today.

Guillaume Aretos, the production designer for Shrek, spoke with me about the film's transformation after Farley's passing: "I think that Chris Farley would've been fantastic to play Shrek. The problem of the [original version of the] film was not linked to him. The story was too dark... and driving the look of the film too dark as well. It could've been an obscure cult movie if it had been done like that. Jeffrey [Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks] didn't want that, he wanted a story that would be original—and at the same time pop."

The filmmakers of Shrek couldn't separate themselves from the very industry and society they were critiquing.

Many replacements were considered, but producers settled on Mike Meyers for the titular role. The aesthetic changed as well: this iteration would be animated using CGI, groundbreaking technology at the time. A new directing team took the movie in a brighter, more comedic direction. Animation is a highly collaborative art, and the design process led to an unexpected development. "There's a scene where Shrek and Donkey go to the town where Farquaad is king. [Farquaad] wants his population to be happy by force if necessary—and everything is neat and perfect. So we started designing and the images that came out...looked like Disneyland," Aretos recalled. "Jeffrey Katzenberg looked at the images we made and said, 'That's exactly Disneyland. Go for it, that's even more fun, push it.'"

It was almost by accident that the filmmakers discovered one of Shrek's most clever twists: its lambasting of the commodification of fairy tales. In his book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and children's literature scholar Jack Zipes summarizes the importance of this theme: "One of the 'moral' questions that Shrek raises is: must we continue to stuff the brains of our children with sentimental stereotyped films produced by the Disney corporation which, for over sixty-five years, has dominated animation and mass-mediated fairy tales?"

It's a question that resonated with the public. Upon its release in 2001, Shrek scored 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and $484.4 million at the box office. Meanwhile, Disney was suffering a string of 2D flops (Remember Atlantis? The Emperor's New Groove?) Elvis Mitchell, in his New York Times review, praised Shrek as a throwback to days "before Disney created the fairy tales that were 90 percent merchandising and 10 percent boredom."

I spoke with Professor Zipes, curious if he believed that the anti-corporate "satire" of Shrek held up over time. "The filmmakers of Shrek were done in by their allegiance to the culture industry," Zipes posited. "They couldn't separate themselves from the very industry and society they were critiquing."

When Shrek first came out, its titular ogre quickly became the animated anti-hero for a new era. Entertainment Weekly included the film on its end-of-decade "best of" list, proclaiming: "Prince Charming? So last millennium. This decade, fairy-tale fans—and Princess Fiona—fell for a fat and flatulent ogre. Now, that's progress."

But why was Prince Charming so last millennium? "The Shrek films anticipated Bush," Zipes theorized. "Because marginalized people triumph in Shrek films. And certainly in the Bush years things got worse and worse for people from the working classes, lower classes, and middle classes."

Nathan Rabin, one of the few critics to harshly review Shrek upon its initial theatrical release, suggested in an interview with Broadly that "[Shrek] came out at the right cultural moment...The underlying message of Shrek is to consume. That's the irony—it's a lampoon of Disney, but it really has the same aim, which is to get you to buy the merchandise, the DVDs, and to go on the theme park ride. It's very much 'meet the new boss, who's the same as the old boss.'"

In the years following its 2001 release, the Shrek franchise evolved into a sprawling commercial empire. There are, of course, the sequels: Shrek 2, Shrek The Third, Shrek Forever After, and spin-off Puss In Boots. There are the television specials Shrek The Halls, Scared Shrekless, and two Netflix series. Shrek the Musical debuted on Broadway in 2008 (complete with its own line of merchandise), closing at a loss after just 478 performances. Producers attempted to recoup their investment by launching productions in Israel, London, Poland, Spain, France, Brazil, Australia, Italy, and the Philippines. There are 30 Shrek video games released across eleven platforms. Shrek has his own "land" in Universal Studios Singapore, a "land" in Australian theme park Dreamworld, a "4D attraction" at Universal Studios Hollywood, and an "interactive adventure" in London called Shrek's Adventure! In addition, Shrek has been the face of hundreds of food products, including Shrek Ogre O's Cereal, Keebler's Shrek Mini-Vanilla Wafers, McDonald's Happy Meals, and M&Ms.

Shrek-themed Twinkies. Image via Flickr.

"As adults, we tend to separate the character that appears in a movie from the character that appears on a product... But that's not how kids experience it," said Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), "[In the mind of a child], Shrek is Shrek, whether it's Shrek in a DVD... or on that Fruit Loops box or in McDonalds or on any of the other thousands of non-food products you can get with Shrek."

In 2007, Shrek's face was put to dubious new use: endorsing The US Department of Health and Human Services obesity prevention campaign. That year alone, Shrek promoted over 70 "energy-dense and low-nutrient foods" while simultaneously "fighting" obesity. The CCFC launched a national publicity campaign to point out this conflict of interest. "[Shrek's HHS endorsement] was a way for those who are responsible for [Shrek] licensing to go, 'We have the Department of Health and Human Services' stamp of approval on our character,'" said Golin. "It was absolutely a way for a company to talk out of both sides of its mouth."

Though it was "revolutionary" at the time, much of Shrek feels dated today. The pop culture references fall flat, and the soundtrack is crammed with dusty hits, including the most abysmal fuckboy anthem in the history of music: Smash Mouth's "All Star." Shrek's heavily merchandised legacy has mutated into a pop-culture punchline; decades after its release, much has been written about Shrek's new role as a running joke on the Internet and the bizarre memes that accompany that status.

Regardless, the film's cultural—and economic—impact is fairly undeniable. According to Aretos, this reveals its value as a work of art. "It's an amazing feeling to work like crazy on [a film], and have it connect with an enormous amount of people," Aretos said. "It's the purpose of art: everybody vibrating with the same wavelength."

Critics of the franchise, however, argue that its influence has a more sinister side. "Kids form incredibly powerful attachments to these characters, and companies know they can use that to train kids to want things," said Golin of the CCFC. "[Children's franchises] are absolutely a way to train kids to be consumers." Golin worries about the negative effects of "consumer comedy" on children's imaginations. "There are studies that show that toys that are based on media programs—kids play with them less creatively, they make up less of their own stories and rely more on the existing story," he added.

Imagination is what enabled William Steig, back in 1990, to give birth to a character named Shrek. Steig died in 2003, unable to witness the irony of his monster's prosperity. And, while the success of the Shrek franchise is a testament to the power of imagination, some would argue that imagination is the very force that the franchise profits from strangling.

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