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Before ‘Deadpool,’ There Was ‘Shrek’

There may not seem to be much overlap between the Merc With a Mouth and the ogre who farts a lot, but the movies they led are two major checkpoints in Hollywood’s total rejection of earnestness

Dan Evans

May 18 marks an important milestone in the history of cinema: the 20th anniversary of Shrek. From a billion-dollar film franchise and Broadway musical to a theme-park ride and a plethora of modern-day memes, there’s no denying the cultural impact of the green ogre. Shrek changed the animation game forever (and if you’re doubting its prestige, tell us why it premiered at Cannes!). To mark the occasion, The Ringer is celebrating Shrek Day, an exploration of the animated fairy tale’s legacy.

In 2001, a jury featuring film legends such as Terry Gilliam, Liv Ullmann, and Charlotte Gainsbourg sat down at the Cannes Film Festival and watched a green ogre fart in mud. Twenty years later, the cultural ripples of that gaseous expulsion have included three sequels, two holiday specials, a Broadway musical, a spinoff, several video games, and a never-ending supply of memes. Shrek has become an inevitable fixture in America, but his entrance into popular culture came with far more sardonic consequences.

When Shrek kicked down his outhouse door to the strains of Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” he ushered in an era of jaded irony and meta-leaning humor that plagues us to this day, from its heavy use in all things Marvel to other films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Birds of Prey, and, of course, 2016’s megahit Deadpool.

“I may be super, but I’m no hero,” says Ryan Reynolds’s foul-mouthed, spandex-clad antihero in the opening sequence of his debut feature. In retrospect, it’s not that different a sentiment from the ad campaign that surrounded Shrek’s 2001 release:

“The Prince isn’t charming. The Princess isn’t sleeping. The sidekick isn’t helping. The ogre is the hero. Fairy tales will never be the same again.”

Indeed, they weren’t, and neither was cinema itself. With Shrek, Hollywood was granted a new type of protagonist: the smug, snarky, unconventional “bad boy” who could come in to take the piss out of a genre when things were getting a little too sincere. He’s come in many forms in the 20 years since, most notably as Deadpool, and always with further diminishing returns, but it can all be traced back to the unlikely success of the big green misanthrope.

For the uninitiated, Shrek is a computer-animated comedy from DreamWorks Animation about a disgruntled ogre on a quest to get a rabble of displaced fairy-tale characters off his lawn. Along the way, he teams up with a talking donkey, fights a fire-breathing dragon, and falls in love with a spunky princess, all while battling the nefarious plottings of the original “short king,” Lord Farquaad. Featuring a star-studded voice cast that included Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow, the film made a whopping $484 million globally before becoming the highest-selling DVD at the time. The New York Times praised its “demolition-derby zest”; Roger Ebert called it “jolly and wicked”; and in short order it became the first Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature.

Perhaps in context it makes sense that a film whose main character fires off dick jokes and brushes his teeth with slug guts became a cross-generational success story and a highbrow awards darling. After all, Shrek arrived during the lull that followed the Disney renaissance; films like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Tarzan were repackaging the formula set by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with dwindling results. Earnestness was quickly becoming taboo, and nobody knew that more than Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Yes, the same Jeffrey Katzenberg who later founded Quibi.)

Katzenberg was the chairman of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 1994, and during his contentious reign he often made the case for a hipper, more adult sensibility in the studio’s animated offerings. While this wish was granted by Robin Williams’s referential turn as the genie in Aladdin, it wasn’t until his forced resignation and subsequent formation of DreamWorks that he’d have complete control. And after some modest animated successes in the Disney mode with films like The Road to El Dorado and Prince of Egypt, Katzenberg was ready to turn up the snark and live his hip, adult fantasy with Shrek.

Even Shrek’s origins aren’t that different from those of Deadpool, whose success can most likely be attributed to its contrast to the 15 years of superhero content that preceded it. Between 2000’s X-Men and 2016, audiences were greeted with no less than five Spider-Man movies, four other X-Men films, three Christopher Nolan Batmans, two reboots of Superman, and Halle Berry in a catsuit saying, “What a purrrrrfect idea.” And that’s to say nothing of the 12 entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe unleashed in a mere eight years. Audiences clearly weren’t exhausted by all this caped crusader content—they paid $519 million to watch tiny Paul Rudd run around a bathtub—but a palate cleanser never hurts and Ryan Reynolds fancied himself the man for the job. If Shrek was the gross, green foil to the shrink-wrapped Disney princes and princesses of the ’90s, Deadpool was the evil twin of the spandex-clad superheroes the studio had been ramming down audiences’ throats for 12 movies. And it worked!

Deadpool, like Shrek before it, was a box office success, a critical darling, and an unlikely awards contender. There was even a period of about a week when Oscar pundits were genuinely wondering whether it would become the first film where the main character says “What the shit-biscuit” to get a Best Picture nomination.

Removed from their context, though, these movies ring hollow. Make someone who missed the hype train in 2001 watch Shrek and they’re likely to be greeted with a head-scratcher: a smug collection of references, in-jokes, and needle drops stitched vaguely together into a movie. It’d be like something I experienced about a month ago when, after having avoided the Deadpool hype for five years, I sat down to watch it and was quickly blindsided by a shockingly juvenile opening credits sequence featuring billings such as “Some Douchebag’s Film” and “Directed by An Overpaid Tool.”

This is the “voraciously self-aware” masterpiece that set the box office ablaze in 2016?

In truth, that credits sequence isn’t such a long walk from the opening of Shrek, which gives us a traditional storybook prologue before Shrek rips out the “happily ever after” page, wipes his ass with it, and flushes it down the toilet. Both openings are statements of intent: “This isn’t your grandma’s fairy tale/superhero movie.” Shrek does this constantly, playing out the fairy-tale trope and then ripping the rug out from under it to call it a dumbass. Princess Fiona sings with a bird à la Snow White, but when she hits a wrong note the bird explodes; when Lord Farquaad’s skyscraper-esque castle is revealed in a glorious wide shot, Shrek pipes in with, “You think he’s compensating for something?”

Same as in Deadpool, when after a graphically violent fight scene, Deadpool turns to the camera with a satisfied air and says, “I’m touching myself tonight.” Marvel movies do this sort of thing all the time. It’s a method of using irony to distance the films from any criticism, a way to say to the audience, “Hey, we know this is stupid, but we’re gonna keep calling everything out so you don’t think it is.” I know this because I used to do it in high school so people wouldn’t make fun of me. (See: me striking out in gym-class baseball and instantly shouting, “No autographs, please! I’m only a child!”) But the fact is it’s not difficult at all to be self-aware. I’m self-aware, right now, but you don’t see me breaking the fourth wall every two seconds to say things like, “You’re probably wondering whose balls I had to fondle to get my very own article.”

Truth be told, Deadpool is hardly the skewering of the superhero genre it wants to be. Those enterprises are studio-engineered pieces of brand extension, targeted at the absolute largest audience possible. Adding swear words and violence and snappy commentary is all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that Deadpool still strains to please, or that the movie opens with the Marvel logo. Its goal is less to subvert and confront the genre than to switch up the tone for two hours, let you have a laugh at its expense, and then lead you back out into the world it was just allegedly taking down, reinvigorated for another 20 same-y superhero movies.

And really, the same can be said of Shrek. While the DreamWorks film gleefully throws darts at the commercialization of Disney, it still became a multi-film franchise with plenty of merchandising and cross-platform tie-ins. Shrek himself may have been presented as an anti–Mouse House bad boy, but at the end of the day he’s just another action figure on a shelf next to Hercules, Tarzan, and Genie. You can’t be the court jester if you’re also running the court.

Interestingly enough, the most-criticized elements of Shrek at the time were the earnest bits. In his New York Times review, Elvis Mitchell called out the “cycle of kiddie musicals” typified by Disney and bemoaned that Shrek was “saddled with a bit of pathos.” But nowadays, it’s those most sincere elements that stick out in a Shrek rewatch. The warmth Mike Myers brings to this big green slob is in stark contrast to Ryan Reynolds’s caustic, “Bugs Bunny on cocaine” performance in Deadpool, and Eddie Murphy’s sweetly ingratiating turn as Donkey is a bright spot in the midst of an onslaught of now-dated pop culture references and needle drops.

Twenty years later, Shrek plays best when it’s embracing, not mocking, its fairy-tale roots. Go figure. The years start coming and they don’t stop coming. The pendulum always swings back. The film’s legacy lives on, but maybe the wrong lessons were learned. In 2021, the most subversive thing a movie can be is sincere.

Kyle Wilson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is happiest when he’s writing about film, television, or his insatiable obsession with Joe Pesci’s performance in The Irishman. His work has appeared at Polygon and Screen Rant and you can follow him at @icanvalk.