Retro Review: Shrek (2001)

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been twenty years since everyone’s favourite ogre first appeared in cinemas. Since then, he’s appeared in three sequels, a stage musical and become an internet meme. In honour of the Twentieth Anniversary and its re-release in some cinemas, it seemed appropriate to journey back to Far, Far Away and revisit the film, to see if it’s really worthy of inclusion in the National Film Registry.

“Once Upon A Time”

Shrek, Donkey and Fiona
Shrek, Donkey and Fiona aren’t typical fairytale heroes // Credit: Dreamworks, 2001

Shrek (Mike Myers) is an ogre, who quite happily lives in his smelly swamp alone. When Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) evicts fairytale creatures out of his land and into Shrek’s swamp, Shrek sets out on a quest with a talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Along the way, Shrek discovers that Fiona isn’t quite what he expected, and maybe it’s not so great being alone.

The comparisons to Disney are obvious and intentional. Shrek came as the “Disney renaissance” was over. Dreamworks, as an animation company, was set up in competition with the likes of Disney and Pixar. So rather than trying to outdo Disney, they did the smart thing and flipped it on its head. Instead of a dashing prince like Fiona is expecting, she is rescued by a grumpy ogre. Even her potential husband to be doesn’t live up to expectations. Fiona herself is not a typical Disney princess, despite dreaming of the day her prince will come and singing to birds.

“For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think”

It’s hard to picture Shrek sounding any different // Credit: Dreamworks, 2001

Shrek, despite being irritable and grumpy, is a likeable protagonist, with a relatable goal. Myer’s distinctive Scottish accent gives him a memorable voice, it’s strange knowing he was originally voiced without the accent. Even Chris Farley’s original Shrek sounds like a completely different character to the one we eventually got. It’s an odd choice, but clearly the right one. Myers is surprisingly serious considering his comedic background, he’s by no means totally serious, but his jokes are more sarcasm and “dad comments” than him actively trying to get a laugh.

Instead, Donkey fills the role as the comedy sidekick, with most of it rambling and Eddie Murphy improvising in the vein of Robin William’s Genie. While some may find he can come off as annoying, cleverly the characters also find him annoying. Just as Donkey might start to get annoying, Shrek tells him to shut up, which keeps him from becoming too grating in a way that other comedy sidekicks can. Despite the differences, the two do bounce off each other very well.

Fiona’s addition in the second half means that Donkey is sidelined slightly, but this is by no means a bad thing. Fiona quickly establishes a rapport within the group, and the mystery surrounding her keeps things from becoming stale. The sparks between her and Shrek are quickly established, and the romance is light enough that it doesn’t bore younger audiences. While she doesn’t get as many gags as the boys, she more than holds her own in the trio.

“Ogres have layers”

Shrek "Onions have layers"
The famous “Onions have layers” scene // Credit: Dreamworks, 2001

At a breezy 90 minutes, Shrek never outstays it’s welcome. The plot is fairly simple, and the film cleverly uses licensed music to generate a mood and get in the character’s headspace. There’s a reason so many children associate “Hallejuah” with Shrek. The animation can seem a little stiff in places, especially when compared to more recent films like Frozen. While some environments can seem basic (The film did have the most unique locations of any animated film at the time), the lighting is incredible. Likewise, character models hold up remarkably well. Though rather simple, there is a reason they’ve become iconic.

Thankfully, the jokes still hold up. One of the great things is that, unlike many children’s films, it’s almost as much for adults as kids. While younger viewers will likely enjoy Donkey’s singing and rambling, adults will understand Shrek’s sarcasm and the innuendo. One subtle but rather dark joke involving the three bears is a highlight if caught. Several other fairytale characters appear, and spotting all the references and jabs at Disney films is great, especially if you also grew up in that era.

Like any good fairytale, Shrek has a simple lesson that still holds up today. The film cleverly works this lesson into most of it’s characters. When we first meet him, Shrek is scaring villages and playing up to the typical image. Later he tells Donkey that people “judge me before they even know me”. In the case of Fiona, “true loves form” turns out to not be her human form at all, and she is accepted for who she is, rather than her looks.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Shrek‘s lasting legacy is well earned. An excellent cast and a magical world, that came along at just the right time. While it may not be as fresh as it once was, it’s characters and message have easily stood the test of time.

Also Read: 5 Feel Good Movies On Netflix

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