“Shrek is love, Shrek is life.” – Famous meme from 4chan (NSFW)
The original Shrek movie came out all the way back in 2001, over two decades ago. And yet even to this day, it remains a remarkably popular movie, especially among Generation Z. Despite being 22 years old, Shrek is – at the time of writing – positioned at #602 according to IMDb’s Popularity rank.
If you look at Google Trends, you’ll notice that search traffic for the term “Shrek” has remained remarkably constant since Google started tracking searches in 2004, with spikes around the release of new movies.
This is really weird. Most movies – especially animated ones – tend to be ephemeral. They are released, people watch them, and they are largely forgotten about, with the exception of a handful of movies that are either hailed as art or find new life as cult classics.
Shrek is kind of both. While no one would mistake it for an art film, the messages and humor in it were surprisingly deep and subversive in 2001. At the same time, the movie has been kept alive in online culture through an unbelievably diverse array of memes.
So why is Gen Z so obsessed with this damn movie? And what can Shrek teach us about making work that will stand the test of time?
There are a lot of layers to this onion, so let’s get peeling.
1. Let’s start with the obvious – Shrek is a pretty good movie.
I know it’s not hard-hitting analysis, but you have to start here. In business, in general, if a product sucks, then it’s dead on arrival.
Shrek is popular in part because it’s simply an entertaining and well-made movie. It has a compelling narrative and engaging characters, and though the animation hasn’t aged well, it was really ahead of its time in 2001 – a time when only about 60% of homes had computers in them.
With a Metascore of 84 on Metacritic, Shrek garnered universal acclaim from critics, who praised its humor, animation, and unique take on the fairy tale genre. Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter called it “wondrous, fabulous, and all but unprecedented,” while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as “jolly and wicked, filled with sly in-jokes and yet somehow possessing a heart.”
To really underscore how well Shrek performed in the eyes of critics, check out this list of top movies from 2001. Shrek managed to get a higher Metascore than Memento, Monsters Inc., The Royal Tenenbaums, Ocean’s Eleven, A Beautiful Mind, and Donnie Darko.
That’s completely nuts, because each of those six movies are excellent in their own right. (You have to respect just how good 2001 was for movies.)
2. Shrek is perfect fodder to be repurposed for bizarre internet memes.
Shrek is full of weird shit. And there’s nothing the internet loves more than weird shit that can be taken out of context.
For starters, you have the song “All Star” by Smash Mouth which plays a prominent role in the movie. So much so that Shrek and “All Star” have a symbiotic relationship where they have kept each other relevant.
I could honestly create an entire post about the afterlife of that one song and easily cruise over the 3,000 word mark. But let’s just say it’s a big enough meme to where Niel Cicierega made a full album of mashups featuring that song.
Many lines from the movie work well out of context. “That’ll do, Donkey” and “ogres are like onions” come to mind. And, of course, the slightly dated and weird animation gave birth to a ton of exaggerated facial expressions which are practically begging to be memed.
Even the distinctive color of Shrek alone is memeable.
According to Know Your Meme, Shrek’s internet fame took off between 2010 and 2012, as the character became a popular feature in pun jokes and greentext stories. Fans of Shrek, who refer to themselves as “Brogres,” similar to “Bronies” from the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandom, have built a substantial online following.
Websites and social media platforms like Shrek.com, Shrekchan, Facebook, and Tumblr have become hubs for Shrek-related content, including fan art, photoshops, image macros, and greentext stories.
Notable examples of Shrek memes include Heidi Klum’s Halloween costume, in which she and her boyfriend dressed as Fiona and Shrek, and the various fan-created “crack pairings” involving Shrek and other characters from different franchises.
All taken together, the fact that Shrek – the character – is so memeable has helped keep the original film alive for longer than you’d expect of a 22-year-old movie.
3. DreamWorks has more cultural cachet than you’d expect.
DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind Shrek, always seemed to live in Pixar’s shadow. This is not entirely unfair since Pixar had a remarkably strong run of films from Toy Story in 1995 to Up in 2009. On the other hand, DreamWorks had a more spotty record and their films varied more in quality.
I mean, really, DreamWorks gave us Bee Movie and the worst Pixar gave us during that time was Cars.
And yet, DreamWorks was and is still an icon in its field. Founded in 1994 by industry veterans Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, DreamWorks has established itself as a major player in the animation world.
Is it as iconic as Disney or Pixar? No. But it has a very distinct niche, style, and tone.
Their movies have irreverent humor, pop culture references, and more mature themes, all of which appealed to the Gen Z audience before they were even being called “Gen Z.” Whereas earnest fairy tales appealed to Millenials, twisted fairy tales appealed to their younger siblings.
Take away the Shrek franchise and DreamWorks still has a kickass resume. They gave the world Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and Madagascar. They’re the third-largest animation studio in the world in terms of revenue, beating out Pixar!
No wonder Shrek is still in our cultural conversation. The studio that gave us the movie is enormous!
4. The humor displayed in the original Shrek movie was far ahead of its time.
When Shrek came out, Disney was coming down from the remarkable highs of its recent renaissance. Kids’ heads were filled with fairytales like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, which – while fantastic in their own right – are earnest. But as the turn of the millennium came and went, that style was losing its appeal.
Fast forward to Shrek and you see a blend of satire and parody that subverted expectations. Take the opening sequence, for example. The townsfolk try to capture Shrek, but Shrek sneaks up behind them and corrects their mistakes, telling horrifying gruesome stories. He licks his fingers, puts out their torch and roars. They scream and then he whispers “this is the part where you run away.” The townsfolk do exactly that.
Not much later, when damsel-in-distress Princess Fiona is first “rescued” by Shrek, she insists on waiting for a “noble steed” to whisk her away, only to realize that her noble steed is an ass and her savior is an ogre.
Later in the movie, Fiona single-handedly defeats a group of Robin Hood’s Merry Men using martial arts skills, showcasing her independence and resourcefulness. Not only is it funny, but it’s also a subtly feminist scene too, complete with a reference to The Matrix!
Additionally, Lord Farquaad’s kingdom of Duloc resembles an amusement park, complete with a catchy theme park jingle and a dysfunctional, animatronic welcome display. It’s funny, but also a pretty clever jab out how commercial and superficial our society can sometimes be.
In this very same scene, when Donkey asks Shrek about Lord Farquaad’s castle, Shrek comments that “maybe he’s compensating for something.” This is one good example of the kind of adult humor that makes its way into the movie too, giving it lasting appeal for those who saw Shrek as a child and then again as an adult.
We take it for granted now that animated movies make adult jokes, subvert classic movie tropes, and reference pop culture. But in 2001, that just wasn’t something mainstream films were doing. Shrek proved there was a market for a whole new kind of humor in its genre, and it has been relentlessly copied ever since.
5. The early 2000s have been subjected to the “20-year nostalgia cycle.” Shrek is no exception.
For a lot older members of Generation Z, born sometime in the late 1990s, Shrek was a staple childhood movie. I was born in 1993, and – like many kids born at that time – have huge plastic containers of full of VHS Disney movies. Were I born a little later, you’d see slightly smaller plastic containers full of Shrek-like DVDs.
When generations mature, they often revisit their childhood memories. That’s part of why the “20-year nostalgia cycle” is so prominent in so many industries. You have 25-year-olds looking back at things they liked when they were 5 with fondness. Shrek is a childhood memory for many recent college graduates now.
Nostalgia is comfortable. It’s nice to look back at that past, spending time with things you know are safe. For a little while, you can get away from the uncertainty and instability of the current time and revisit some happy memories.
And, of course, our capitalist society knows how to milk that for everything it’s worth. That’s why early 2000s fashion is making a comeback. That’s why all your childhood shows will be eventually turned into mediocre movies. That’s why Shrek has been the subject of multiple sequels and spin-offs.
6. Shrek’s message about self-acceptance was surprisingly prescient.
Now here’s an interesting thing about nostalgia – in order for 20-year-old fashions to come back into style, they have to gel with modern values and beliefs. For example, mainstream society isn’t exactly bringing back old-fashioned homophobia back into vogue, despite the fact that it was everywhere in the early 2000s. The vast majority of people have changed their beliefs on that subject.
Now you might think it’s weird to bring up such a political example here, but it’s really important because it underscores how fast society has changed. Shrek subtly promotes a lot of values that have aged really well over the last 22 years and that are really important to Generation Z.
For example, take Princess Fiona. She transforms into an ogre every night, and supposedly, will change back to her “true form” full-time after she finds her hero and love interest. Now, of course, you’re this deep into an article about Shrek so I’ll go ahead and spoil it – Fiona ultimately turns into an ogre, because that is her true form.
This is super interesting, because the movie ultimately is pushing a message of self-acceptance. It challenges traditional beauty standards and norms on a couple of levels. For one, Princess Fiona ultimately turns into an ogre and is happier that way. But also, Shrek didn’t particularly like her human form, but he was willing to overlook that because he loved her. Her turning into an ogre, funny enough, was a glow-up in his eyes!
Keep in mind that this movie dropped when Victoria’s Secret was running really hypersexualized shows that objectified its models and lacked any diversity in body sizes.
Then you also have an interesting B-plot between Donkey and the dragon, Elizabeth. They ultimately fall in love, too, and that’s an interspecies romance!
Generation Z cares a lot about inclusivity and diversity. So does Shrek. And it’s never preachy about it at all. In fact, the movie takes joy in making fun of itself!
7. The Shrek franchise has given us some well-made sequels and spin-offs, keeping the original film and its characters culturally relevant for a long time.
Every product has a lifecycle. Movies are no exception.
Trends come and trends go. The surest way to stay in the conversation, as a business, is to keep launching new things. For animation studios with a well-known franchise, that means to create sequels and spin-offs.
The Shrek franchise didn’t stop with the original film, as it went on to spawn several sequels and spin-offs, including Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, Puss in Boots, and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
Did these sequels achieve the same critical acclaim as the original? No. But the track record is less spotty than you’d expect if you look at the Metascores.
- Shrek: 84
- Shrek 2: 75
- Shrek The Third: 58
- Shrek Forever After: 58
- Puss in Boots: 65
- Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: 73
Bear in mind that just about anything over 60 on Metacritic is worth a watch. DreamWorks has made more good sequels and spin-offs than not, and that’s unusual for franchises like Shrek. They could have made a bunch of money and tried a lot less harder than they did.
The success of the Shrek sequels and spin-offs also led to the creation of various merchandise, video games, and even a Broadway musical adaptation. This expansion into different media formats further cemented the Shrek franchise’s presence in popular culture, making it more accessible to a broader audience.
In other words, sequels are part of why Shrek didn’t get sucked into a swamp of irrelevance.
Shrek has aged well. Remarkably, freakishly well, in fact.
You can learn a lot from this franchise when you’re creating your own business, especially if you work in the media. For one, focus on making something that’s genuinely high quality. That is the bedrock foundation of success.
If you want to have your work made into memes, make sure that it works well both with and without context, as internet culture has a way of stripping away that context.
And above all, find some values you that you care about and that will stand the test of time. For Shrek, that was self-acceptance and the ability to see beyond appearances. These are timeless values that just so happened to become more relevant as the years went by.
Lastly, don’t forget to keep producing new work. It doesn’t have to be sequels or spin-offs, per se, but you always need to keep things fresh. Releasing new products is a good way to do that.
There are a lot of reasons Shrek has stayed popular for so long. And it’s clear to me that this film’s influence on popular culture is far from ogre.