Shrek Turns 20: looking back on the fairy tale classic that should’ve failed

Can you believe it’s already been 20 years since Hollywood ‘Smash’-hit Shrek first hit cinemas? Let’s revisit this fairy tale classic!

Believe it or not, Shrek is based on a 1990 picture book of a very similar name – Shrek! So yes, the exclamation point makes a difference.

But while Shrek! positioned our main character as a ghastly and unlikeable monster that was more in line with a villain than a typical hero, Shrek took an innovative turn, making our villain more relatable and, more layered. Hehe.

Image: Polygon

All in all, the movie was a rude, irreverent take on the fairy tale genre that was brand new for audiences in an era where Disney was releasing accessible comedies like The Emperor’s New Groove and A Goofy Movie.

That aside, Shrek is still pretty conventional. Even though our main character is indeed a monster, he still undertakes a standard hero’s journey of self-discovery, sweeping up a sidekick and princess, all while battling a ferocious dragon. The latter alone probably positions him furthest away from being a villain, and it’s a considerable turning point in the film.

Shrek! on the other hand, is straight-up weird. There’s no real conflict with the character, and the oddball details don’t really go anywhere. Basically, it just wasn’t film-worthy.

Suffice to say, Shrek was an unexpected success.

Director Vicky Jenson said that the crew: “didn’t really have the sense of scope that it was going to be big. There would be glimpses of like, wow, I don’t think anyone’s seen this before, this is really funny or this is kind of touching.”

Casting an ugly ogre as the main character was still unheard of at the time, and as a result, it caused low hopes from its very own creators.

The lack of a traditional princess – Fiona is comparatively confident and self-sufficient against the fairy tales the film parodies – also made things more concerning for the crew in terms of potential box office success.

Even the production itself was marred with misadventures. Producers and directors came and went, a major role was recast, and technical fallbacks were aplenty.

Shrek’s magical environment required complex rendering, especially the graceful movement of the main human character, Fiona, while Donkey’s fur required technological advances the studio had not prepared for.

To top things off, SNL star, Chris Farley was originally cast as the ogre, but sadly passed away during production at age 33.

Alas, Shrek WAS a success! It immediately topped the box office on its release date, May 18 2001, and instantly reached widespread critical acclaim – eventually winning the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

20 years later, it remains to be a beloved, quirky fairy tale whose characters and humour are still reflecting and influencing contemporary popular culture all at once, reaching yet another generation of fans. Shrek is love. Shrek is life, after all.

And the success didn’t end with the film itself. Shrek‘s de facto theme song All Star by Smash Mouth, was already a hit. Still, it soon found its way back onto the Billboard charts after the film’s release  –  a rare phenomenon in the music industry – while their cover of I’m A Believer (originally by The Monkeys) hit #15.

Several sequels and spin-offs followed, in addition to a theme park attraction, a Broadway show and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wow!

And perhaps this may be a little premature, but allegedly… there is already a 5th film in production!

And it doesn’t stop there. An entire subreddit exists on Reddit dedicated to the titular character, while Shrek memes continue to be a worldwide phenomenon.

And don’t even get us started on the annual Shrekfest! Yes, there is a festival dedicated to Shrek. It all started in 2014 as an internet joke, but it became all too real soon after as most of these things do. Now, it’s an ongoing festival

Image: 3GI Industries

When considering what was key to all this success, the memorable cast might be the obvious first choice.

Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were already household names before the film’s release, with their unconventional but perfectly balanced chemistry taking things just another step further.

In fact, much of the cast came up with their own lines, largely through improvisation, which added a human touch to the newly developed 3D animation.

But perhaps a bigger key to its success was something a little more under the radar. The characters within the Shrek universe are well-aware of the fantasy genre’s conventions in their own story.

This essentially defined the future of DreamWorks: crafting offbeat stories that, unlike Disney, prided themselves on edgy premises,

And so, what should have been a disaster, breaking almost every convention imaginable and marred with fallbacks throughout, ended up being one of the biggest films of all time.

It looks like there is such a thing as magic, after all.