Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Shrek

March 1, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: May 18, 2001
Directed By: Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson
Written By: Ted Elliott, Tony Rossio, Joe Stillman & Roger S.H. Schulman
Produced By: Aron Warner, John H. Williams & Jeffrey Katzenberg
Edited By: Sim Evan-Jones
Music By: Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell
Production Company: DreamWorks Animation, PDI/DreamWorks
Distributed By: DreamWorks Pictures
Mike Myers as Shrek
Eddie Murphy as Donkey
Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona
John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad

What Do We All Know?

Shrek is a 2001 animated movie that changed everything about animated movies. Rising opposite the behemoth that was Disney animation (and helped along by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg), Shrek was the first movie in over a decade to legitimately challenge the House of Mouse’s stranglehold on theatrical animation. And it did so by poking fun at the tired tropes of the Disney formula and embracing its ability to do things that Disney simply couldn’t. When the Oscars finally created their long overdue Best Animated Picture award, it wasn’t a Disney animated movie that stood tall, or even beloved Pixar film Monsters, Inc.. It was Shrek.

The critical and especially the commercial success of Shrek had a ripple effect on the industry that can still be felt today. It legitimized DreamWorks as a studio that had to be paid attention to, paved the way for other studios to become successful, and forced Disney’s animation branch to evolve if it was going to survive in the new millenium. That kind of impact undoubtedly makes Shrek an important film, but is it also an enduring classic? After all, those last few sequels were pretty awful and Mike Myers is basically reduced to cameos in mediocre movies these days. When’s the last time Eddie Murphy or Cameron Diaz did anything that anyone paid attention to? Undeniable game-changing impact aside, does Shrek still hold up as a good movie in its own right?

What Went Right?

Shrek is, more than anything, a balancing act. It balances jokes for kids with jokes for adults, making sure that jokes about sex don’t dominate the film. It has a positive message about not judging people based on their superficial appearance, but rarely allows these more heartfelt moments to overwhelm the light-hearted, irreverent tone. Lastly, even though it gets a lot of mileage out of poking fun at fairy tales and Disney in particular, it also knows when to use those tropes to its advantage. The rescue of Princess Fiona is a classic stuff, Fiona’s true form is borrowed wholesale from a dozen folk tales, and the wedding interruption and subsequent events wouldn’t feel out of place in a Disney movie. Shrek uses these tropes, but knows how to make them just different enough that they feel fresh and funny. Something else that sticks out to me on a technical level is that the film is very well paced with little wasted time. The act-ending beats (the rescue of Fiona and the all is lost moment) arrive at exactly the right time, allowing each act to play out fully without feeling rushed or dragged out.

The plot and structure of the film is solid, and its irreverent tone and appeal to all ages gives it a solid identity. But setting, tone and structure only get you so far without good characters. And Shrek has excellent characters. The titular ogre is charismatic and funny, but also a little bit tragic – everyone fears him simply because he is an ogre, and his reaction is to feed into that image, push everyone away from him and not trust that anyone could see him as a friend. Shrek’s post-wrestling match posing is a funny cultural reference, sure, but it also showcases that he craves the attention and acceptance of others, even if he can’t admit it to himself. This attitude is challenged by Donkey, a character devoid of prejudice and relentlessly optimistic even when situations don’t call for it. Donkey’s personality would threaten to be saccharine in a lesser movie or with a different persona, but Eddie Murphy’s natural abrasiveness makes the sincerity palatable and also allows him to be a constant source of hilarity. Fiona is not as good as these two characters, mostly because she doesn’t appear until half an hour in, but the romance with Shrek feels authentic and unforced, and her ability to empathize with Shrek helps both of them to become more mature and realistic about what they want from life. Somewhat ironically, this is a better romantic princess story than quite a few Disney movies.

What Went Wrong?

More than most, I feel like mileage is going to vary from person to person on whether Shrek is a genuine classic, simply a good movie, or possibly overrated if undeniably important. A lot of that comes down to the humor and whether you thinks it’s inappropriate for a film aimed primarily at six-year olds, and that’s the sort of decision I just can’t make for you. Not all the humor works for me, there’s quite a few moments that made me raise my eyebrows, and Lord Farquaad’s name is probably a step over the line in terms of things you want little children to be repeating when they ramble about their new favorite movie to their grandmother. But I don’t think any of these are inherent flaws, and simply a matter of taste. And with that acknowledgment, I don’t think there’s many meaningful problems with the movie that don’t come down to personal preference. It’s a well-polished, well-constructed, well-executed movie that knows what it wants to be and accomplishes that goal with impressive skill.

<img src=

And In Summary…

I sometimes wonder what it’s like for kids who never knew a world without Shrek. Sure, plenty of kids born after 2001 probably didn’t watch Shrek until they were a little bit older, but the impact of the film on the entire animation industry is inescapable. For me, I was 11 when I saw Shrek for the first time and I was the perfect age to appreciate how different it was from the Disney classics I’d been raised on (and still love to this day). But I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked this upon revisitation, and enjoying it on an academic level. It’s pacing is excellent, its non-stop barrage of well-executed jokes left me smiling, and even the things I don’t love just felt like natural extensions of Shrek’s identity. It’s a good, perhaps even great movie on its own merit, but its impact on the industry is something that cannot be overstated.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation, The Iron Giant, The Secret of NIMH, Duck Soup, Unbreakable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Fight Club, Groundhog Day, Drive

Follow Me On Letterboxd!
I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Winter’s Bone and Alita: Battle Angel.