‘Shrek’ (2001) tells the story of an ogre whose land has become overrun with fairy tale characters, the way to restore everything to normal is for Shrek to go on a journey to save Princess Fiona at the request of Lord Farquaad, who needs a princess to finally become King. The film is based on William Steig’s book of the same name. Steven Spielberg gained the rights to the book in 1995 and thus began its journey to film, eventually being headed by DreamWorks, who had been created by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former chairman of Disney, who left after disputes with the company, creating the new studio as competition. ‘Shrek’ became DreamWorks' phenomenon, earning $267,665,011 at the domestic box office (Box Office Mojo, 2001a), the second-highest domestic grossing film of the year.
The film went on to create four sequels, tv and film spin-offs. It became a successful Broadway musical and was given great endorsement deal with many companies. The character of Shrek himself was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010. Not only was it financially successful but the story, a parody of the classic Disney fairy tale narrative, was unique and exciting for not only children but also adults. It had a plot that differed from the usual fairy-tales, with it even being described as “much more nuanced than its non-satirical predecessors” (King, Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo, 2010, pg. 104). and thus, helped DreamWorks become a true competitor against Disney and Pixar, helping to make a name for them in the animation world. The film ultimately won the first-ever Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, solidifying its top spot in animation. This essay will investigate scholars’ readings of the film and its success and will argue why the film should be considered significantly important within the film industry.
Due to the film being based on Steig’s successful book, the book and film would inevitably be compared often. In Lewis Roberts article he compares the two, stating that the film “offer models of identity based on consumption and rooted in commodity culture, tales which seek to transform their viewers into consumers and even into commodities themselves” (2013, pg. 2), whereas the book “shows a confident, independent ogre who learns to resolve his crises of identity and to achieve a stable relationship with an Other without the need to consume” (pg. 3). His argument is that because the film version has Shrek being a lonely hero and not a destructive ogre and therefore while relatable is not “images of successfully normalized desire” (pg. 7), and thus he feels it diverts from the original text and its message of being comfortable in your skin, no matter what your image or personality is, is hindered when turned in to film, as though he feels the destructive ‘truth’ of Shrek has been diluted to make him more likable in the film, as film Shrek says he has no problem with the world as it is the world “that seems to have a problem with me” (Shrek, 00:47:38). In the 2011 book ‘Investigating Shrek’ it is argued that the book being so short, does not have any moral which is explained that “This moral is at once conventional and revolutionary: roughly, it suggests that, if the marginalized members of society band together and fight, the good can triumph over the bad” (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Depelteau, pg. 6). The book does not fully delve into the complexity of Shrek as a character, nor the other characters or the world that surround Shrek and are a vital part of his journey. In the book, Shrek only encounters other characters extremely briefly while on a journey to get to a princess he has been told he will marry that is uglier than he is.
Donkey, for example, only joins Shrek as a talking mule to get him to the castle and then is not heard from again. Whereas in the film, Donkey not only has his own personality but is vital to both Shrek and Fiona in their journeys within the film. Jane Caputi declares, “It is Donkey who is able to induce the emotionally shutdown Shrek to be able to experience and express feelings of love and friendship; who demands respect and equality from Shrek; who first sees, and accepts, Fiona” (2007, pg. 35). He is the driving force behind Shrek and Fiona coming to terms with their insecurities and understanding one another. In the film Donkey is the only character, from the beginning of the film, that seems truly happy within himself. There is nothing that anyone can say to make Donkey not be his own person, Shrek lashes out at Donkey, seemingly at his most insecure moments, yet Donkey defies this and instead teaches Shrek to learn to love who he is. Especially in the eyes of others. While Shrek is surely confident in himself, this seems to more evident when he is in control of the situation or in his own elements, when Shrek ventures out and encounters others, like Donkey and Fiona, he becomes less confident and therefore lashes out. This demonstrates to audiences that even the ‘scariest’ and most confident seeming people can have insecurities. It shows a vulnerability in a male character that is scarcely seen onscreen, especially in fairy tales. This helps connect with young boys, as well as girls - the normally intended target audience, connect with a character and follow their journey to becoming more comfortable around others and within themselves. This is something the book does not delve into, yet the film can and was highly successful in doing so across multiple films.
It should be noted that there has been some criticism towards the character Donkey, regarding race as he “has an unmistakably African-American style of speech” and “this conventional pairing of white hero and darker sidekick is a problematic” (Caputi, pg. 34), as it seems to promote the hierarchy of a white male over a black man. The character is voice by actor African American actor Eddie Murphy, playing a character that could be considered ‘coon’ like, empathizing a negative portrayal of black characters. While the film may have not fully characterized Donkey too well, regarding race. The film seemed to have branched racism and gave a view of understanding to children, in a different simplistic way. In an interview, which Depelteau notes in a chapter for ‘Investigating Shrek’, journalist Thomas Gerbert spoke with a child about what he saw in the film the child said, “the others are white, and him, he is green” (2011, pg. 126). The child seemed, in some manner, aware that Shrek was being treated differently and there was significance in the difference between skin color and how people act towards you and their preconceptions of you. Not only is the color of his skin different either, but his accent is also a very thick Scottish accent. In comparison to the other accents in the film, all mostly very neutral American accents, it can come across as quite garish, most likely to add to the persona of Shrek being so different from everyone around him and therefore is penalized for it. The film having Shrek be the hero, in the end, helps children see that the color of your skin or the way you talk does not define you as good or bad and that you should not judge a book by its cover.
‘Shrek’ has continuously branched different subjects that have tended to be considered taboo in children’s films especially in the LGBTQ community. In the sequels it shows Pinocchio, a boy, wearing women’s underwear. The big bad wolf, being referred to as ‘gender confused’ as he is wearing a dress. The Ugly Stepsisters are presented as women, with masculine features and are voiced by male actors. It is introducing the realities of the world to children in a safe and easily perceived way to help them understand a bigger complexity to human life. Especially as these characters are never shown as being bad because they do not conform to the ‘normal’ way of life. The lines between what makes someone good or bad have been blurred. The film teaches you that not everything you have been told to believe is correct. Another difference between a Disney fairy-tale and this new wave of fairy-tale.
Another difference found in the film ‘Shrek’ is the presentation of women. When we first see Princess Fiona, she is one of three choices Lord Farquaad is given as a suitor to finally get the throne that he craves for. To entice him to pick her we are told she “a loaded pistol who likes Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain” (Shrek, 2001, 00:19:10), as though she is a loaded pistol because of these two ‘traits’, which should be deemed her most important qualities. She is thin and beautiful, a standard trope of a Disney princess. The film shows us what we have been believed is the goal as a woman in a fairy-tale, to be what is perceived as beautiful and to act according to what men would find interesting. We learn Princess Fiona is locked in the tower is to protect her from others seeing her as an ogre, something a spell cast upon her in her youth causes at night. The tower could also be showing us that the idea of a princess has been trapped by Disney’s poor representation of these kinds of characters. By being freed by Shrek and Donkey, in a more chaotic than a heroic method, Fiona is released from that Disney princess constrictive narrative and is now able to be what DreamWorks felt a princess should be like. While in her human form we see Fiona does a plethora of things that are opposite of what audiences would normally expect from a princess. She sings with a bird, a moment like that of ‘Snow White’, then when they sing an inexplicably high note the bird explodes. Then after noticing the bird’s nest holding eggs, she cooks them for breakfast to feed Shrek and Donkey. Here DreamWorks have mixed what you would typically see in fairy tales with more adult humor and something far off the princess you had been presented with at the beginning of the film. She also fights off Robin Hood and his merry men, saving her male companions, this shows young girls that women can do what men do, they saved her, and she was able to fend for herself and save them as well.
She is so unlike the other princesses not only in personality but also because she has the witches curse on her that turns her into an ogre at night, the only way to cure this would be for Fiona to kiss her true love. When Shrek saves her from the dragon guarded castle, she demands a kiss from her hero, Shrek and Donkey laugh in her face, stating Shrek is the furthest thing from a prince charming. This is a moment that also highlights humor at the ridiculousness in this plot point of many fairy tale narratives. The characters laugh in the face of a princess who is so delusional from the stories she has heard as a child that she is not able to understand the reality of her situation at that moment. It takes Fiona going on this journey and meeting a fellow ogre and a self-assured donkey to realize that everything she has been told is ugly and unlovable about herself is incorrect. That her prince charming is a self-absorbed, power-hungry man and that the grotesque monster is the man of her dreams. She kisses Shrek, as an ogre, resulting in the magic curse being dissolved and Fiona staying an ogre for the rest of her life. Another lesson shown her, being that beauty is not just the way you look and that you are not unlovable no matter what you look like.
This happily ever after ending received criticism from Lewis Roberts, in his article he is was wary about the depiction of Fiona, who he said was always making choices that “are always made in order to realize Shrek’s success” (2013, pg. 15), and ultimately being saved by a male character and marrying him. He sees the ending as Fiona becoming what Shrek wants in a love interest and disregarding Fiona and her ogre-princess personality, especially after he had observed that “She is a character most often in flux” (pg. 14), being able to fight as a princess and be a love interest as an ogre, making her different to most princesses. Then she ends the film as any other princess, marrying her ‘prince’. While the film highlights the issues with the typical fairy tale narrative it is not meant to not be a fairy tale, instead, it should be looked at as the reinvented fairy-tale that shows the women, not as docile damsels in distress, but as women who are capable when not held back by toxic characters, whether that be the true villains of the story of the dull prince charming.
The success of the characters, who differed from the norm, teaching not only children but adults that they should be comfortable in their skin, seemed to be well received by audiences. Each sequel dealt with themes that not only can affect children throughout their childhood but also, dealt with many things that adults were going through. DreamWorks were able to connect with such a wide range of audiences by having a child’s film, that is easy to understand and fun to watch for younger audiences, also be littered with jokes that are catered to a more adult audience. This inclusive and reinventive approach was so successful that the character of Shrek was even given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010. He is the only DreamWorks animated character to be given the honor, going in alongside many Disney characters. Not only because of the iconic nature of the character but also because the film and its plethora of loveable characters have been used to help promote charities and other organizations that have helped improve the lives of many children, or to help encourage good habits.
‘Shrek’ was also the first DreamWorks film to be given a spot on the National Film Registry, the only other animated films on this list had been that of Disney. This was another big moment for DreamWorks, seeing as the NFR only picks 25 films each year to add to the list, the criteria to be added to the list is to be a film of critical, aesthetic, or historical importance. These significant accolades within the film industry, being presented to the film, emphasize that ‘Shrek’ was the project that truly propelled DreamWorks into recognition alongside other animated studios.
In 2002, the Academy Awards introduced a new category for films made in 2001, Best Animated Feature. The category had not been created before this time as it was felt that there were not enough animated feature-length films made that could justify a category dedicated to them. Before this time very animated films had qualified for Best Picture, while qualifying, it seemed the Academy’s interest did not truly lie in awarding animated features with recognition. With the introduction of an entire category dedicated to the animated film industry, it gave an opportunity for these types of films to be recognized in greater circumstances and acknowledge the importance of them within the industry. The category seems to have become incredibly important throughout the years, as animated films seemed to have been snubbed often from other categories. It has been stated that the category was invented so the Academy would be able to leave animated films from the ‘more important’ awards. Yet it also shows how much this singular category is needed as they could have been potentially just left from the awards completely if this is all accurate.
For ‘Shrek’, the category was incredibly important, the film was one of the first fully animated films DreamWorks had created using CGI, teaming up to work with Pacific Data Images, a computer-animated production company, bought by DreamWorks in 2000. Up until then, they had focused on hand-drawn animation instead. When it won the award, with competition from Disney’s ‘Monster’s Inc’ (2001), a film made by Pixar-Disney film and which Shrek came in just behind in the Worldwide Box Office with $$484,409,218 (Box Office Mojo, 2001b), but came in higher in the Domestic Box office, it became even more evident that DreamWorks had a top place within the computer-animated world. It could not be clearer that its work was indeed a great competition for Disney. The characters and their individualization were praised by many, as the film has a wedding scene with 1500 characters that the CGI team were able to individualize each character more. Another detail in ‘Shrek’ that was commended was the character of Donkey: “‘The fur shader’, Bielenberg explains, ‘uses triangular polygons with normals tweaked so they appear to be round’. ‘For each piece of fur, you can control how many polygons to generate and the curvature’, he says. ‘The curvature and the direction the hair is grown can be animated so we can get blowing fur’” (Robertson, 2001, pg. 28). As they used this complex computer-generated technique for other characters' hair too it meant Donkey’s fur looked more like real hair than what had been typically seen on animals in previous animations, it did not lay flat on the character. The high popularity of this film, with it being made with CGI, “led to the corporate mindset that hand-drawn animated features were no longer economically viable” (Beck, 2005, pg. 249), therefore led them to further their success not only with ‘Shrek’, but other films of DreamWorks as well. While clearly a business move, it also created such great stories, that may have taken longer to make or would not have been made at all if the change had not happened.
Not only did the franchise have success onscreen but also onstage. The show was adapted into a musical for Broadway in 2008, the show also toured the US and went to the West End also. A filming of the show was also done, being released on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital release in 2013. The show revived multiple Tony Award nominations, winning for costume as well as being nominated for a Grammy. The West End production was nominated for Laurence Olivier Awards in 2012, winning the Best Supporting Actor category. The film’s success knew no bounds, its story is so relatable that it can be successful through a musical on stage, a whole different medium to an animated film. It is a true testament to the work DreamWorks put into the story and characters as well as the animation. It can be enjoyed by so many audiences of different age groups, long outlasting the year it was released in, the story still affecting audiences ten plus years after its release.
The film has clearly made an impact within the film industry, not only monetary but also affecting how audiences view the fairy-tale narrative. The characters have a complexity that is unheard of in fairy-tales, combing the childlike enjoyment of animation with adult humor that brings together all age groups instead of pigeonholing it. The idea of good and bad has been reimagined, creating a positive look into life for children to understand more difficult subjects of the real world and the realities of it. Princess Fiona has helped redefine the idea of a ‘perfect princess’ that had been typically portrayed in Disney fairy-tales. Alongside Shrek, they both show audiences that outside appearances do not mean anything to what you are like inside. With its enlightening plot and loveable characters, the film garnered many awards and attributes as well as a successful franchise that went beyond film. All of this helped get DreamWorks to the top of the animated world, helping them realize that CGI was a true asset to their storytelling. It is clear from all these points that Shrek is considered significant to the film industry, specifically to the success of DreamWorks.