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Why is ‘Shrek’ so enduring? Remind yourself now, it's streaming on Peacock!

Underneath the pop culture gags, the franchise has layers.

By Brian Silliman
Shrek (2001)

Why does everyone love Shrek (streaming now on Peacock) so much? The franchise has become a touchstone in pop culture. It has embedded itself into the human consciousness in ways that were unimaginable when the first movie debuted in 2001.

Shrek was funny, fun, touching, technologically impressive. It won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine masterpiece musical Into the Woods had already done the “mix all of the fairy tale stories together” bit, so that aspect of the story wasn’t new. Of course, Shrek never strayed into the darkness and ethical quandaries that are depicted in that show’s second act.

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What Shrek did do was mainline the flipping of the script to make the disgusting ogre the hero. Knights were awful, dragons were capable of heartbreak, and donkeys were unable to shut up. It also mixed in a ton of pop culture references and contained more than a little Smash Mouth. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. Get your game on. 

The sequel, Shrek 2, was also a huge hit (it's also currently streaming on Peacock). The franchise refused to die, and even Shrek Forever After (streaming on Peacock as well) was not the end. The Puss in Boots character from Shrek 2 got his own movie, and then he got a sequel. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was an unexpected box office hit that continued to succeed in theaters even after it became available for streaming rental.

Is all of this because of the counter-culture Shrek movement that has sprung up? Don’t roll your eyes, because “movement” is a small word compared to what goes on in the weirder corners of the internet. Shrek memes pop up constantly. There are forums dedicated to making art about Shrek, but the rule is that the art has to be awful. Shrek himself (played by Mike Myers) is a character to be mocked. Ogres have layers; congratulations, everyone has layers. 

As a symbol of the early 2000s, Shrek has possibly become a symbol of how simple everything used to be. “Yeah I’m a believer, and I shouldn’t have been. Here’s some macaroni art of Shrek’s dumb face.”

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The pop culture jokes don’t hold up. No one is still laughing about the early days of American Idol, and kids won’t even get the reference now. Just try to explain it to them, they will not care. Cliched lines such as “try the veal” were groaners then, and they are groaners now.

Do these movies endure purely because society enjoys throwing digital rocks at them? Do we enjoy laughing at Shrek, with his boogers and farts, instead of laughing with him?

That would be a highly cynical way to look at it. An argument could be made that Puss in Boots, played by Antonio Banderas, is the best thing to come out of all of it. The first spin-off was an unexpected delight, and The Last Wish is legitimately great. The love for it is real, and not ironic.

What about the rest of it? We think the answer is simple. Shrek is for everyone. Kids like it as well as adults. It is sweet, and it has a positive message.

These movies were funny back in the day, but are they still funny now? We did an experiment (we rewatched them), and yes they are. The work of John Lithgow (Lord Farquaad) in the first movie is timeless, and his interrogation of the gingerbread man is still funny. Jennifer Saunders is still a triumph in the sequel, and her rendition of “Holding Out for a Hero” still gives us chills.

Donkey (Eddie Murphy) still makes us laugh, and yes, Puss in Boots is the gift that keeps on giving. John Powell's score for the first movie is still brilliant. The pop culture references (far less prevalent in the first movie) aren't so bad. We didn’t just laugh to ourselves about all of the bad art and memes that we could make while we revisited the movies, we honestly enjoyed ourselves. Go figure. 

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There’s heart and kindness present. The humor doesn’t punch down, and it isn’t mean. The franchise is harmless, which might be why it’s an easy target. Shrek begins as a “scary” ogre who is misjudged by everyone around him. The same can be said of these movies. Shrek isn’t hurting anyone, and neither are the movies that bear his name.

The Shrek franchise has — and we can’t believe that we’re writing this — layers. They are simple layers, but they are layers nonetheless. Put that on a poster.

Shrek, Shrek 2, and Shrek Forever After are currently streaming on Peacock. Try the veal.