The Upside-Down Fairytale | Shrek Turns 20

Ogres have layers. So does this movie. Shrek, that magical, weird, upside-down fairytale experience by Dreamworks turns 20 this year. What is it about the title green swamp dweller that’s so appealing and led to him spawning three sequels?

Shrek is the tale of an unlikely duo, Shrek and Donkey, who embark on a quest to rescue a princess, Fiona, from a castle. It is a simple tale of Prince Charming saving the damsel in distress but with a twist (okay, the actual Prince Charming shows up in the sequels). On the pair’s quest, viewers are also introduced to a number of fairytale characters like the Three Little Pigs and the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood.

Through such a simple concept, the movie builds a world around these pre-established characters. The stellar voice cast – including Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and Jon Lithgow – adds dimensionality and weight to the archetypes they are playing, helping to sell the thoughts, jokes and emotions of the protagonists and make them believable. There is a natural chemistry and charisma – all the more impressive given none of four lead actors met each other during production – that weaves its way throughout the film and adds to the more lighthearted moments as well as the scenes of dramatic tension.

The film’s music is not only an incredible subversion of the popular Disney renaissance, it actively pokes fun at it. We see characters singing to non-diegetic music like ‘All Star’ by Smashmouth, challenging the conventions of the animated musical genre. There is a clear passion and love that went into creating this film, with the crew even going so far as to spend an additional four million dollars to re-record Shrek’s lines in a Scottish accent. This was because Myers thought it would make him feel more working-class and expressive when moving from angry to vulnerable.

The animation, while somewhat dated, is gorgeously stylised and has led to the internet going wild for the character in the modern resurgence of the property. Looking at the 3D models and environment designs (36 in total, the most of any computer-generated film at the time), we can see beauty in the landscapes, something that would become even more impressive throughout the franchise.

There is more to this film than just the characters though. What makes it better than most animations of its kind – it is the first-ever Oscar-winning animated film – is the deeper messages that accompany it. We see a lonely protagonist who is untrusting of the outside world, we see accidental love, friendship, and the birth of an unlikely hero. While it works so well as a spoof, a deconstruction of the dominating fairytale structure, there’s also depth and nuance. In subverting the Disney animated fairytales, Shrek shows us that looks can be deceiving and that true beauty is actually on the inside.

Shrek is a fast-paced film that combines witty dialogue, strong action and, most importantly, heart. Over the years, it has grown in popularity even more, being referenced and parodied ad nauseam. Why? Well, because it blazed its own trail through the world of animation, not trying to be anything else. Shrek 2, its sequel, built strongly on its predecessor, though it would never have been as solid were it not for the groundwork that Shrek had put in place first.

Shrek is a 20-year-old piece of animated joy that is worth revisiting not just for nostalgia but to appreciate all it achieved. Prior to its release, some thought of it as an underdog to the massive behemoth of Disney. It fought the animation giant back then and it still stands tall today.

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