Onions and ogres both have layers, and so do memes on the internet. That’s right folks, this week I’m examining the 2001 animated classic, Shrek. The lovable green ogre has now been a part of the collective consciousness for almost 20 years and, as the 2010s wind to a close, it’s fun to consider the character’s transformation into one of the most consistent, pervading and inexplicable internet memes of this decade.
According to The Atlantic, Shrek jokes first started popping up around 2010. Attempting to explain Shrek memes is an act of futility; they are often disconcertingly sexual and straight-up bizarre, yet they somehow make sense in the context of the internet. Basically, someone came up with an idea for a weird joke and the internet, as it often does, perpetuated it indefinitely until Shrek, as a character, became a stand-in for any generic bit of entertainment and thus the object of easy meme fodder; it also helps that he has a big goofy face and a funny name.
Here’s the thing: the original Shrek movie was objectively good, great even, yet that’s often forgotten in the context of the increasingly bizarre meme culture that’s spawned from it over the course of the past decade. Shrek’s legacy is tainted, wtf?
Before he was maybe the most memed character of the 21st century, Shrek was the star of one of the most subversive, refreshing and universally well-received animated movies of the new millennium. That description may seem dramatic, but Shrek literally won an Oscar in 2002 for Best Animated Feature. The movie appealed to people across four distinct groups: kids and their parents, film critics and even snarky teenagers.
Perhaps this universal appeal is what allowed the ogre to become a meme legend, yet it also allowed the movie to age incredibly well over the past 20 years, particularly as movies have trended toward the formulaic. Shrek is famously a spoof of classic fairytales and the more contemporary and often animated retellings of those fables.
Children in the movie’s audience are able to delight at the plethora of fart jokes and the overall heartwarming story, while older audience members can likewise appreciate the more subtle, adult-oriented humor, like when a magic mirror eloquently says that“[Snow White] lives with seven men, but she’s not easy.” Characterizing classic fairytale characters in this kind of mundane way, combined with the subversion of casting an unapologetic ogre in place of the “dashing hero” archetype, causes Shrek to feel refreshing in a sea of fairy tale fatigue, even almost 20 years later.
All of this is easily forgotten in 2019 however, which is a shame. Shrek is genuinely a likable, unique character and even esteemed film critic Roger Ebert knew he was special. In his glowing review of Shrek, where he gave the movie a perfect four out of four possible stars, Ebert wrote, “I suspect he may emerge as an enduring character, populating sequels and spinoffs. One movie cannot contain him.”
The observation’s prescience is astounding, though nobody in 2001 could have ever predicted just how true it was going to be. Shrek 2 was the highest-grossing animated movie ever until 2016’s Finding Dory and the franchise only grew from there. More sequels, spin-offs and even a Broadway musical only served as precursors to Shrek’s 2019 status as an internet icon.
This isn’t inherently bad, the jokes are great and I will always advocate for the internet’s absurdity, but Shrek was one of my favorite movies growing up and it’s upsetting that Shrek’s internet presence has eclipsed that. Shrek is love, Shrek is life … but Shrek was also an Oscar-winning animated classic and don’t let the internet make you forget that.