Registering the Registry 2020: Shrek (2001)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, the cultural contributions from the 21st century’s CG fairy tale phenomena are never ogre as we dive into the swamp to consider America’s favorite green-skinned, sensitive onion man. Courtesy Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson out of Dreamworks in 2001, it’s Shrek! Some of you may die from embarrassment reading this piece, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make!

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Shrek is, without exaggeration, the ultimate in American success stories.

Let’s trace the Ogrelord’s humble origins, shall we? Shrek’s true father is William Steig, cartoonist for the New Yorker since 1930, who moved into illustrated children’s books in 1968 aged sixty-one. The book Shrek! originally appeared in 1990, a watercolored piece about a young ogre whose parents lovingly kick him out to find his way in the world, a task quite easy for one so hideous and haunting as Shrek. In literary form, Shrek harbors few insecurities or fears, only becoming distressed when he has a nightmare about children hugging him and when faced with his own countenance in a hall of mirrors, neither of which disturb him long — his waking self is guaranteed to keep any sickly sweet younguns far far away, and recognition of the horrible beast before him as himself only strengthens Shrek’s self-confidence. He otherwise walks the world in search of his fortune and the answer to a witch’s riddle wholly unaccosted, belching fire and scattering peasants and taking what he wishes in defiance of his status as an ugly, mean-spirited monster. Some parents complained about this as a bad message to send their children, but Shrek! isn’t really about being LIKE Shrek. Though Steig jokingly denied any moral to the book, it’s primarily about the extremity of the situation, showing how even an ogre like Shrek can feel comfortable in his own skin, proud of every revolting thing he is, traits a developing audience can use to burnish and solidify aspects of their own self-image that might go against social norms.

Shrek’s initial appearance

If there’s nothing of the future written in the stars, Shrek makes further argument for greatness as something hard won. Steven Spielberg took early interest in the book as potential source material for a traditionally animated picture at Amblin, only for Dreamworks founder and producer John H. Williams to lure Spielberg and the rights over to the new studio after Williams’ children took an immense liking to the ogre. Within the fresh halls of Dreamworks, former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg saw potential in this fractured fairytale as not only a potential major moneymaker, but a way of publicly spiting those who ousted him from his old position, notably Disney CEO Michael Eisner. So it was the first notes of cynicism crept into Shrek’s life as an animated adaptation entered development alongside Antz, The Prince of Egypt, and The Road to El Dorado, all early Dreamworks pictures meant to compete directly against Disney. The road ahead of course proved bumpy and unpleasant, as is the way for animation start-ups: initial plans to make the movie with motion capture performances inserted into model backgrounds fell apart, and computer graphics house Pacific Data Images struggled against the numerous demands imposed by the vision of Shrek as a revolutionary technological breakthrough in simulated cloths, liquids, environments, and humans. Chris Farley, the first lead voice actor for Shrek, died of a drug overdose before completing his lines, and not only did his replacement Mike Meyers insist on reworking the entire script to make the character his own, he came back after finishing his lines in a midwestern drawl to request a redo in a Scottish brogue, necessitating redos on millions of dollars of animation. Many who built and rendered the project only came aboard the demanding production as punishment for failure on other Dreamworks films, resulting in “getting Shreked” as an insider phrase for reassignment to Siberia. All round, a real swamp of a production to hear it from those who lived through the experience.

Birthing pains are such a common thing with animated movies, aren’t they? With all these behind-the-scenes dramatics and woes at its back, Shrek opened to critical acclaim and immense domestic financial success; shortly after wide release, it even competed at the Cannes Film Festival for the Palme d’or, the first animated film to do so since Peter Pan in 1953. We now can look back on the opening and say yeah, this seemed a guaranteed hit simply by considering the factors in its favor. A celebrity voice cast including Michael Meyers, Eddie Murphie, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow, all hot ticket items with enough cultural cache to lure parents into theaters. Visuals a technological leap beyond Antz’s and, if not quite to Pixar’s lofty (and well-funded) standards, capable of drawing the eye as unlike anything from outside the Disney Corporation’s holdings to date. A soundtrack pumped with relative heavy chart-hitters of the time, from Baha Men to Rufus Wainwright to Smash Mouth in their defining cinematic appearance. And while nowhere near so omnipresent as later outings, a tie-in marketing campaign strong enough to result in strong first-week-of-release home video sales on the weekend Monsters Inc. launched in theaters. This movie was built to do well with audiences no matter the final product, but such is the same of dozens upon dozens of family features, and few receive such long-lasting, widespread love from their original and latter-day audiences alike as Shrek. Why?

Animation-wise, the movie remains an impressive effort, though one whose cracks have grown prominent twenty years from release. You can easily tear into the regular human models as plasticky and creepy, how their faces look incredibly poor in comparison to their clothes, props, and surrounding environments. Most fluid or semi-fluid substances like muck, mud, ’n’ milk are dodgy and disgusting in a way surely not intended given their proximity to the camera and duration on-screen. Fire effects sometimes hover on a plane slightly removed from the rest of the world, and intense light sources have a nasty habit of revealing the inadequacies in the film’s layered facial texturing, especially on Shrek’s oddly built philtrum, which drew my eye far more often than I recall in past viewings. Every so often the environments gain that eerie airless quality common to Toy Story’s exterior scenes, usually those where the camera won’t linger too long, yet enough in number to keep the film’s world feeling wholly believable. All little things, all distracting when they dominate the picture however briefly, all harsh reminder of days when pundits seriously debated whether Shrek or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would vault the uncanny valley and deliver 3D CG animation to the promised land of 1:1 fidelity with reality.

All no matter too, as these represent wavering support columns within an otherwise well-built architecture, with the components meant as load-bearing holding fully together. Shrek himself still looks great, an obviously cartoonish creation brought to life through exaggerated gestures who nonetheless possesses the capacity for subtle facial expressions, who exists in a convincing simulation of ogrishly rough cloth and swaying fat, imbued with an impressive number of details for someone sculpted and puppeteered on creaky late-20th-century box monitors. Donkey suffers yet fewer problems than Shrek, the attempts to capture his species’ gangly, awkward nature transforming any limitation in his textures or movements into just another aspect of his… person. Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaad display few of the issues seen in the other human models, she thanks to caricatured features and a wider range of expressions to keep her face from looking figurine-like, he by virtue of appearing such a gonkish goblin of a parodic “handsome” man as to make his creepy eyes and sorta weird skin work — though I do have to note, despite the common praise of Fiona’s ogre form as more beautiful than her human self, its limited screentime seemingly resulted in inattentiveness towards the fine details, leaving it less pleasing to the eye than human Fiona or Shrek himself. As to the environments, the locations that work do truly sparkle, special mention to the Dragon’s keep with its cool blue lighting regularly tinged or overwhelmed by flaming reds and a plethora of background detail jokes for characters to run past during a really good action sequence. The flaws have grown, but the successes compound on one another to make a film I still very much like looking at.

Visuals mean little without strong characters, however, and we’re in plenty luck on this front, for the cast occupying Shrek very much are like onions. Nothing terribly complex, but paying attention to Meyers’ vocal performance as Shrek reveals the vulnerable person capable of tenderness and kindness beneath the self-satisfied, crass exterior well before the story demands he come out and say as much. I almost want to say he makes both sides of Shrek work, except they ARE more layers than simple sides, expressed with varying degrees of intensity and transparency depending on how defensive Shrek feels at any given moment, which makes for a character suited to comedically terrorizing Donkey on a rickety bridge and regretting his own thickheaded actions alike. Murphy too works his part to good effect; he’s not at all the annoyance I expected after revisiting so many other overly-talkative sidekick characters from childhood, instead breaking up his chatterbox tendencies with off to the sides lines and unintentionally revealing rambles into verbal corners to explore more of his character. Contrary to the joke about donkeys wearing their fear on their sleeves, Donkey definitely matches Shrek for situationally complicated personality, his insecurities fine fodder for jokes and tear-jerking. Amongst the cast, it’s Cameron Diaz who surprised me most this watch, for I’d completely forgotten the degree to which she enlivens the film after Fiona’s rescue with her mix of spoiled prissiness, practiced elegance, bursts of petulant anger, and pride in her gross weirdness. The character’s nature as a conflict-maker Shrek can’t help find weirdly enchanting demands Fiona cycle through perhaps a greater itinerary of emotional states than either male lead, and while we could stop for a convo about standards in female character writing, the variety ultimately works through Diaz’s pluck. Really, the only character to not manage such a layering feat is Lithgow as Farquaad, and he is basically Michael Eisner trapped in a midget’s body with personality deficiencies and sexual frustrations built higher than his penis castle, so the shallowness works to properly antagonize.

With these components, the picture plugs along smoothly as expected, smoother even when it indulges action or sweetness. Straightforward story about going on a fairy tale rescue mission for selfish reasons and finding betterment through interpersonal connections spiced up with mild gross-out humor and sly jokes for parents in the crowd — s’a winning formula with this animation and this cast, and the intangible extras you get along the way are worth plenty on their own too! Although the wrestling match and courtship montage sequences represent points when the animation’s limitations slam against the camera lens hardest, they’re respectively energetic and oddly sweet enough for the spectacle of Shrek piledriving knights or the romance of frog and snake balloons to come through as the main takeaway. On the matter of licensed songs and pop culture jokes, I cannot adequately judge the picture — the songs and gags are embedded deep in my Aged Six When Shrek Came Out mind, and I’ll always say stuff like cueing up “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” or doing a Matrix 360-spin while Fiona’s kicking the Merry Men’s faces in are funny, regardless whether they actually are. Some is maybe a little less funny than remembered, some a little more thanks to Certain Factors (hang on, we’ll get there…), but I am hardly the person to judge. This same inadequate judgmental standard applies to the “Hallelujah” scene, which I would likely declare the high point of Shrek if I’d sat down convinced everything else in the movie was total dreck. It’s not only a well edited montage sequence that showcases the character expressions and environmental details and lighting effects in flattering ways, not only a solid combination of of image and the gold standard in “Hallelujah” covers. It’s something I recall watching many times over at a babysitter’s house and finding completely enrapturing, enough to move tears from my eyes at a time when I had no way of understanding why I didn’t experience proper emotional connection to most things or people thanks to my place on the spectrum. “This made me cry when I was a stunted seven-year old” is too powerful a connection to look past, though I know lofty appraisal of the “Hallelujah” scene is common enough to make this disclaimer bunk; everyone loved this part it seems.

So why not get a little controversial and claim it intersects with the aspects of Shrek that don’t exactly work for me as an adult? See, while Fiona’s second act presence is a good deal’ve fun thanks to her unapologetic oddities and comfort in her own skin, the reveal of her Ogre By Night curse also comes with revelation she isn’t half so comfortable as she lets on. The ogrish behaviors and tastes she displays by day are fine, but the actual form of an ogre repulses her, convinces her she’ll never be accepted in polite society. We get to explore this self-loathing through Shrek after he partially overhears her woes and believes she’s talking about him, which gets us the whole “Hallelujah” scene and the part where he apologizes to Donkey and the wedding crash, all nice stuff. Fiona’s experiences and thoughts, however, remain largely unexplored, for the romcom-derived misunderstanding driving this conflict leaves her a passive actor for the remainder of the third act, someone who visibly regrets her harsh words towards Shrek after he fetches Farquaad early in retaliation, yet not someone whose contradictory feelings about how she looks and how she acts receive story focus. True love’s kiss makes her an ogre for good and Shrek’s acceptance seems enough for her… only I look at this and think, shouldn’t there be more? Shouldn’t we get something with Fiona experiencing a lack of happiness in Duloc’s pristine surroundings beyond one or two montage shots, see her come to her own breakthrough independent of Shrek, make his affirmation of her ogre ugliness stronger for the pair both going through their own journeys? Dragon’s largely off-screen romance with Donkey communicates a greater amount of proactive development in the third act, and while this fits the film’s overall subversive bent, wouldn’t it subvert fairy tale conventions yet further to have the princess realize her own worth in being crude and rude and gross, same way Shrek did in his picture book? Fiona’s a necessary dual protagonist once she enters the film, not merely a love interest, so her experiences deserve better exploration than “jilted romcom girl feels bad, gets her man, feels better.”

Oh, this is precious! The movie’s theming has fallen short of its potential!

This here’s the biggest problem in Shrek, this move born from the film’s play to common media sensibilities rather than its own identity, and I think the implications of this would haunt the film as it entered life as a major mainstream franchise. Shrek and Fiona’s resolution is conventional in the way of an everday romcom, in a way detrimental to the film’s structure rather than additive as with the inclusion of contemporary pop and references amidst an otherwise typical fairy tale landscape. A somewhat damaging bridge too far in the now, a growing blight on the property in coming years. While I’m sure we all agree Shrek 2 improved upon the first film — better animation, stronger character writing, funnier jokes, more developed world in terms of doing its own thing and satirizing modern culture, using “I Need A Hero” to long-popular effect — the movie itself is also likely the last time most would say Shrek as A Thing was all the way good under Dreamworks’ stewardship. Certainly the marketing blitz which accompanied the film grew to a fever pitch, partnering with American Idol and slapping Shrek’s face and colors on every sugary product under the sun. The tie-in media never matched the first two pictures for inventiveness, and as further sequels and spin-offs continued their tandem decline in quality and growing desperation for relevance, the Shrek media sphere became evermore staid and cliched and pop culture-obsessed, until the final major piece of Shrek was a 2011 Thriller replication. Worse, where Shrek’s cynical origins gave its fairy tale reverso an edge to help sell an honest heart, those who took inspiration from its dealings with celebrities and bands, its wry tone and hints of dirty humor, basically created a decentralized media empire of movie studios trying to copy the surface level aspects of an onion movie, a trend seen across Dreamworks competitors AND Dreamworks themselves. Few animated family films inspired by Shrek’s success escape the sensation of wearing false faces to appease a trend (even Disney’s eventual attempts), bestowing upon the originator an unfair air of being exactly like its copycats.

Essentially, the perennial and proud outsider was embraced by the mainstream, and had all his personality and uniqueness squeezed out like eye jelly onto toast until all taste for his distinct flavor went out, advertisements for MINT OGRELOAD at Mickey Dees or no. When Dreamworks moved past cultural pisstake Shrek replications into at least occasionally trying for a new, earnest style with works like How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, and the later Kung-Fu Pandas, Shrek did not come along for the ride. Shrek Forever After proved an unwelcome, unhip misfit amongst the evolving, fitfully maturing Dreamworks slate ten years after the first film’s release. Sure, Puss in Boots got his own film and Netflix series to carry his friend’s torch, but going into the 2010s Shrek was worn out, the concessions to the mainstream that gave his quirks an initial in on the culture having overwhelmed his person, sanding the big green guy down until nothing of him lived at the house where he became a star. For many a media property, the tale ends here, their afterlives little beyond fitful, ironic appreciation from some corners of the internet, peaking and valleying with the years. Happened to Madagascar, happened to Over the Hedge, keeps happening to Bee Movie. Shrek, however, got lucky.

Y’all know Shrek meme culture. The quotations, the greentexts, the still frames, the heavily edited still frames, the distorted SourceFilmMaker animations, the spin-off chan board and its subsequent export to all corners of the internet. SOME-, it’s not ogre yet, Shrek is love Shrek is life, that one Shadow the Hedgehog comic you know the one, E, the cringe compilation, pinches furros, Shrek But Every Time He Takes A Step It Gets 5% Faster, the works. The internet LOVES it some Shrek memery, and the remarkable thing is it never seems to burn out. Shrek the Meme Ogrelord has become part of the online cultural background radiation to the same degree as F, loss.jpg, Pepe, and all things Sonic. In contrast to the Blue Blur, though, there’s not a hint of disdain or mockery about Shrek’s online presence, no matter how much he mutates into something new and weirder with each passing year. Adoration defines the fandom around the big stupid ugly ogre, and it seems the uglier he gets, the deeper and fiercer fans love him. It’s almost as if Shrek!’s original message rings true amongst the democratized acceptance of the main character in the ultimate unregulated democratic forum, a collectivist appreciation for the idea of something malformed being comfortable with its own disfigurement and loveable to a princess even uglier than he. Free from corporate influence and bids for middle America, Shrek can be more himself than ever on the internet, by virtue of becoming something more bizarre than the moviehouse would allow. Online, Shrek could burst out upon the world with all the impact of his initial exit from his outhouse on a daily basis, like some-BODY ONCE TOLD ME THE WORLD WAS GONNA ROLL ME

I’d link the Shrek Is Love Shrek Is Life animation, but I like not getting angry emails about inappropriate content.

It’s worth a diversion to discuss 2018’s Shrek Retold, a collaborative fan project produced as part of that year’s Shrekfest, in excess of two hundred artists recreating the entirety of 2001’s Shrek under direction by mutative Shrek enthusiast and festival organizer Grant Duffrin. The project serves as the definitive expression of online Shrek culture, delivering a litany of odd twists on the base film’s movements in as wide and shifting a manner as certain animations within. You never know whether the next shot will bring another duplication of shots and details from the film in a different animation style, a family acting out scenes in the local park, half-lucid acid trip reinterpretations with the exact same energy as something off [adult swim], a music video of entirely original interpretive dreamdance to realign the timestamps after a disturbingly quick rendition of a sweet scene, or a man possessed of impressive vocabulistics reviewing the movie wrong on purpose. Ratboy Genius will handle the Duloc singing display, A Certain Online Anti-Personality will follow a Jojo-inspired fight sequence with an admittedly kinda funny scribbled crayon and paper scene, the Melon will voice Donkey’s objections to Dragon’s probing tongue as an amorphous Shrek swings buck nude from the chandelier, and David Liebe Hart will grace the entire thing an extra note of legitimacy with a garbled, wonky-puppet-backed rendition of “Hallelujah” I unironically find equally worthy and emotionally stirring as the John Cale version. There is endless feasting to be had for the enthusiast of surreal, remix, and outsider art all, alongside quite a few submissions whose virtue is simply the lofi means fans of the film reproduce or bastardize its movements out of purest passion. A body can find an endless procession of collaborative reanimated and remade content across the internet, from The Dover Boys to Zelda CDi to Chowder to Super Mario World to Steamed Clams, and they’re all fantastic, exemplary instances of the internet’s wonderful tendency to make something new and inspiring from borrowed materials; Shrek Retold perhaps stands above them all thanks to its one of a kind relation to a one of a kind source.

It’s my article, I’ll link as many videos as I like.

Shrek, for its triumphs, is a faulty movie. It looks unpleasant in patches, it doesn’t fully realize its own story or message, it inspired the worst in its competition and eventually sank its successors to the depths as a preoccupation with pop culture will do. In the hands of a global fandom, it is retold wilder and woolier than ever, vulgarity and incompleteness and lacking ability celebrated as virtues right alongside the triumphant and skilled and beautiful. Vices and faults become as much part the equation as successes and conventionally acceptable attributes, powered by self-confidence in and self-love for every pimple, wart, blemish, every rotting tooth, every stinking fart, every patch of greenish skin upon the face. I count Shrek Retold as an important part of Shrek’s cultural presence because it represents Shrek’s American success story in microcosm: from humble origins emerges a great, brought to soaring highs and sinking lows by the same strive for mainstream love, only to find acceptance and belonging amongst the disparate, strange many. It’s a good thing we wait at least ten years before inducting pictures into the Registry; it took this long for Shrek’s real legacy to become apparent. Sure, Shrek the movie pushed CG animation forward, challenged Disney’s supremacy at the family film box office, made Dreamworks’ bones as a prominent 21st-century animation house, won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, inspired a complete conversion in American theatrical animation towards 3D CG films like nothing amongst Pixar’s prestige output ever did, completely upended the focus and tone of children’s entertainment in ways we hear echoed to this day. Shrek the movie really belongs in the National Film Registry because Shrek the ogre went on a quest and found love in those hideous and strange as he onscreen and in real life alike, the internet’s love for their Ogrelord pure as his own happily ever after romance. And they say love is only true in fairy tales.

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If I am to say the Shrek fandom’s word on the film makes it worthy of the Registry, I simply must ask you the readers what you make of all this? How’d you feel about Shrek’s cultural staying power and his place in the cinematic canon as an ambassador to online collectivist art? Leave your comments, and keep an eye out for next week’s picture. The controversy around astronomical research and construction on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea rages to this day, so we’ll join documentary videographers of Hawaiian culture and activism Joan Lander and Puhipau for their 2005 look at the issue, Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege. You can find it through the Criterion Channel, or through the educational site ʻŌiwi TV. See y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

I write on the National Film Registry.