Celebrating ‘Shrek’s 21st Birthday: How a 2001 Movie Started a Cultural Phenomenon

Shrek turns twenty-one this year. That means anyone that grew up watching the green giant, no not the vegetable kind, can now enjoy an eyeball martini or pint just like their favorite ogre.

Years later, that same generation brought to life the Shrek in the Sky filter that quickly dominated TikTok For Your Pages worldwide. The filter features a massive but slimmed-down version of the ogre in a latex catsuit and heels dancing in the sky. The generation that grew up on Shrek basks in the nostalgia and hilarity the filter brings to one of their favorite childhood movies.

What makes this early 2000s movie a cultural icon two decades later?

Theatrical Success

shrek
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

The movie is loosely based on the 1990 “Shrek!” children’s book by William Steig. Steven Spielberg quickly purchased the rights to the book in 1991 and brought the film to DreamWorks in 1994.

On May 18, 2001, Shrek hit theaters with an “All-Star” cast of Mike Meyers (originally cast by Chris Farley before his death in 1997), Cameron Diaz, and Eddie Murphy.

The film made over $488 million at the box office worldwide and was the fourth highest-grossing film in 2001 behind the first Harry Potter, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Monsters, Inc. With a $60 million budget, the film was a smash hit.

DreamWorks later released sequels, a musical, and even an amusement park attraction, Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007), Shrek Forever After (2010), Shrek The Musical (2008), and Shrek 4-D (opened in 2003 and closed in early 2022). There are even rumors of a fifth Shrek movie on the way.

Children’s Movies Redefined: Flipping the Script

lord faarquad
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

Children’s movies often open up with lighthearted backstory, enchanting scenery, and beautiful music. The creators of Shrek had other ideas.

The movie opens with Shrek reading from a fairy tale book. After reaching the end he loudly proclaims “What a load of…” followed by flushing sounds as he struts out of his outhouse, scratching his rear end. He then begins bathing in mud and digging around the swamp for bugs for his dinner while Smash Mouth blares in the background.

They realized that what kids love is being messy and dirty. This movie spoke to them right out of the gate. It was not just kids this movie spoke to, snarky one-liners and suggestive situations are riddled throughout the franchise it’s a wonder how they managed a PG rating on the film.

When the two main protagonists arrive at Lord Farquaad’s castle, the main antagonist. Shrek takes one look at the massive structure and goes “Do you think maybe he’s compensating for something?” The joke flies right over Donkey’s head along with most kids in the audience. While adults may have choked on their soda laughing at the blatant vulgar joke in a kid's movie.

Snarky one-liners, raunchy jokes, heavy sarcasm, and filthy imagery kept both children and adult audience members entertained. The creators successfully made a film that children and angsty preteens can enjoy well into adulthood.

Ogres Are Like Onions: People Are Different Than They Appear

shreks house
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

In a world that pokes fun at classic fairytales where the big scary monster is the villain, the first Shrek movie plays on the idea that ogres are misunderstood. Most of the human characters are horrified at the sight of Shrek. Their immediate instinct is to hunt him down based on perceived stereotypes.

“People take on look at me and go ahh help run. A big, stupid, smelly ogre! They judge me before they even know me. That’s why I’m better off alone,” Shrek from the 2001 movie.

After years of angry mobs chasing him with torches and pitchforks, he decides to shut himself from society and live in solitude. Shrek pretends like it doesn’t bother him, but he lets it slip that he longs for friends and companionship, even though he initially pushes them away for fear of rejection. This explains why he found Donkey an utter nuisance in their budding friendship, well he always does, but grows to think of him as his best friend.

This isn’t necessarily a new concept, but contrary to the big scary monster acting as the villain the true monsters are human.  Lord Farquaad is the villain in this story evicting, torturing, and imprisoning fairy tale creatures for “Poisoning my perfect world.” On a side note, many fans speculate that the creators hid a vulgar phrase in his name. Farquaad sounds a lot like… well you can google that one.

As the movie and its sequels move on, Shrek grows as a social and fun character with friends and a family he thought he’d never have. Proving it's not about what you are, it's about who you are and being comfortable in yourself that makes you happy.

It’s Not Just True in Fairy Tales: Loving Yourself and Finding Love

shrek and fiona
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

Princess Fiona lived with a curse that transformed her into an ogre every night. To “protect” Fiona, her parents locked her away in the dragon-guarded tower. Only her parents, Fiona, and a few other characters in the sequel knew about the curse.

Fiona was rejected for who she is, creating an inability to love herself and consider herself beautiful. She was obsessed with Prince Charming rescuing her to break the spell with “True Love’s Kiss” so she remains in her human form forever.  After Shrek and Fiona shared their “True Love’s Kiss” at the end of the movie, Fiona remained an ogre. She was confused why she permanently remained the green version of herself, stating she was supposed to be beautiful.

Shrek, smooth as ever, replies “But you are beautiful.”

Shrek teaches the audience that everyone is beautiful, special, and can find true love.

Perfectly Powerful Princesses: Strong Female Leads

fiona
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

Featuring a princess as a strong independent character was a foreign concept at the time. Shrek begins with the typical trope of rescuing a princess from a dragon-guarded tower. Princess Fiona is far from a damsel in distress.

She demolished Robin Hood and all of his Merry Men in hand-to-hand combat after they attempted to “rescue” her from Shrek and Donkey.

The sequels prove no different, in the third movie Princess Fiona and a band of classic fairy tale princesses Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty along with Shrek-original characters Doris and Queen Lillian (voiced by Larry King and Julie Andrews) embark on a dangerous mission to rescue Shrek.

Throughout the film and its sequels they prove that princesses don’t have to be dainty and weak, they can do the rescuing better than any prince charming.

Band of Ogres: Shrek’s Cultural Impact Today

To this day, Shrek has a cult following defining younger millennials and generation Z. The Library of Congress inducted a copy of the first film as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Movies preserved in the Library of Congress are meant to help future generations understand American culture and the significance of that time. Hysterically, Shrek is deemed one of those relics.

Itching to Celebrate Shrek’s 21st with Us?

Grab your pint and turn on the TV. Shrek and its many sequels are available on various streaming services. Try having a Shrek party and dress up as your favorite character. Once you finished the movie, hit the town as the bunch of misfits Shrek is meant to symbolize.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: (DreamWorks Animation).


Kristina Lazzara-Saari
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Kristina Lazzara-Saari is a freelance writer at Wealth of Geeks. She is an experienced narrator with proven success in digital and print creation and strategy. She writes about complex topics to make them more understandable to a wide audience.

When she’s not writing for Wealth of Geeks, she is either playing with her two dogs, practicing the French Horn, or going for a run.