‘Shrek’ at 20: How a Chaotic Project Became a Beloved Hit

The idea that an ugly ogre could be a big-screen hero in a romantic comedy-fairy tale was not one many had high hopes for. The lack of a traditional prince wasn’t the only hurdle for “Shrek,” the next big animated production from the newly formed DreamWorks. Producers and directors came and went. A major role had to be recast. And technology was proving to be thorny. In fact, the project was initially unpopular among employees.

“Getting sent to ‘Shrek’ felt like being sent to Siberia,” the director Vicky Jenson recalled.

But when the movie was widely released on May 18, 2001, it immediately topped the box office, received wide critical acclaim and went on to win the first Academy Award for best animated feature. Twenty years later, “Shrek” is still a beloved, offbeat fairy tale whose characters and jokes continue to permeate pop culture, reaching another generation of fans.

“We didn’t really have the sense of the scope that it was going to be big,” Jenson said. “There would be glimpses of like, wow, I don’t think anyone’s seen this before, this is really funny or this is kind of touching.”

Co-directed by Jenson and Andrew Adamson, the movie was based on a children’s book by William Steig, and its basic outline hardly gets at what makes it so audacious. An angry, self-isolating ogre, Shrek sets off on an epic journey with Donkey, his sidekick, after their swamp is overtaken. Their quest involves a deal with a tyrannical lord: rescue a princess, Fiona, whom the nobleman wants to wed, and in exchange, Shrek can get his home back.

Key to the film’s success was the unforgettable comic voice work delivered by a cast that included Mike Myers as Shrek, Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Cameron Diaz as the princess.

The look of the movie was also unexpected. Even though DreamWorks had experience with computer animation, thanks to “Antz” (1998), the main characters in that movie didn’t pose the challenge that the range and scale of those in “Shrek” did. The new movie, with its magical environment, required complex rendering, especially if the human Fiona was going to move gracefully. That and other elements, like Donkey’s fur, meant technological advances. At the time, the “Shrek” visual effects supervisor referred to “a level of complexity in the movie that hasn’t been done before.”

As for the story itself, the writing partners Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who had worked on “Aladdin” and “The Road to El Dorado” with the DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, were on board from the beginning. (The script is credited to them as well as Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman.) As Rossio recalled, Elliot immediately saw an opportunity with “Shrek” since the genre of fantasy comedy, satirical by design, had produced popular book series at the time.

But “that genre had rarely been attempted in the movies (William Goldman’s ‘Princess Bride’ is the only film that comes to mind) and never in animation,” Rossio said via email. “In comic fantasy, you play all the story elements straight, with one change: the characters in the story are well-aware of the conventions of the genre of their own story. It was an experiment.”

In its early years, “Shrek” had gone through a few producers and filmmakers, like Kelly Asbury, who had left to co-direct another DreamWorks project. Jenson joined “Shrek” in 1997, rising to the head of story and finally director, her first time in that role in animation.

Casting was still an issue when she came onboard. Diaz and Murphy were in place, but who would play the title character was up in the air. The former “Saturday Night Live” star Chris Farley was originally cast and had recorded many of his lines when he died at the age of 33 that year.

Jenson said she and her colleagues were big fans of “S.N.L.” and Mike Myers. “It kind of took a little selling to the studio because he was still breaking in, but he wasn’t the huge name that he is now,” she said. (Myers didn’t respond to requests for an interview; Murphy and Diaz declined to comment for this article.)

Meanwhile, the directors and the story team toiled away, inspired by films as varied as “The Princess Bride” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” As Jenson recalled, Adamson would say that if they could show an idea to their moms without getting in trouble, then it could stay in the movie. The story team was credited with a lot of the brash humor the film is known for, but the actors were also given space to improvise and play.

Myers, who gave Shrek a Scottish accent that reminded him of his father’s, came up with a lot of the movie’s most memorable quotes, like “Better out than in” after the ogre burps.

“After Mike Myers finished the film, he had the idea to try a different vocal performance, and it was so successful, Katzenberg chose to rerecord his role,” Rossio said, “and a good number of scenes had to be adjusted.”

By the end of production, Rossio said, there were more than 5,000 pages on his hard drive for a final screenplay that was 85 pages long.

The movie competed at the Cannes Film Festival before its American theatrical release. After opening at No. 1 at the domestic box office, it went on to earn nearly $500 million worldwide on a production budget of $60 million.

“Shrek” was widely praised by critics and went on to win the first Academy Award for best animated feature, beating out, among others, Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.”

Jenson herself didn’t understand what a hit “Shrek” was until she was dining at a sushi restaurant in North Hollywood and overheard fellow diners talking about the movie: “One of them says, ‘Have you seen “Shrek”?’ And the other one is like, ‘No, no, I don’t go see kids’ stuff,’ and they go, ‘No, no, it’s not for kids. You have to go see it.’”

The film’s success spawned other successes, like songs from the soundtrack. “All Star” by Smash Mouth was a hit two years earlier but “Shrek” gave it new life, while the band’s cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” rose to No. 15 on the Billboard charts. Jenson recalled band members telling her years later, “Everybody asks us to play that song. I don’t know whether to hug you or hate you.”

Several sequels and spinoffs followed, as did a theme park attraction, a Broadway show and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Shrek became a signature character for DreamWorks, said Jerry Beck, an animation historian, and defined the kind of films the studio would go on to make: offbeat stories that, unlike Disney fairy tales, had more of an edge to them.

“And subsequently DreamWorks movies are that way, I’m thinking of the ‘Madagascar’ films and others. ‘Shrek’ is the template,” Beck said.

The “wise guy” take on centuries-old fairy tales and fables was common in cartoons like “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears” (1944) or Mad Magazine stories, he noted. Every generation can claim its version of these, he said, and “Shrek” did so in the context of a larger story with appealing characters.

“I can identify with Shrek, I look like that when I get up in the morning,” Beck said, adding, “I think a lot of people can relate.” The film serves “kind of a dual purpose there where it’s making fun of life, but it’s also making fun of these famous stories that we all know.”

Moreover, its examination of true love, self-acceptance, identity and friendship, all while resisting the typical damsel-in-distress theme, which has influenced a generation as a result.

Today, it’s hard to scroll through social media without spotting “Shrek” memes, which have become their own language. The ogre is invoked to describe falling in love with someone for their personality, There’s even an entire subreddit on Reddit dedicated to him.

Last year, “Shrek” was added to the National Film Registry. A fifth film is reportedly in development, and to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Universal Pictures is releasing a special edition of the movie on Blu-ray and other formats this month.

One filmmaker, Grant Duffrin, even started an annual Shrekfest. It began as an internet joke in 2014, but since then Shrekheads from around the world have been gathering annually in Madison, Wis., though last year’s was virtual. Duffrin also produced “Shrek Retold,” a shot-for-shot remake of the movie by more than 200 artists working on different formats.

One of the major metaphors in the movie, “ogres are like onions,” might also reflect the layers of meaning fans have discovered in the storytelling. Arguments are still waged online over whether the movie is a commentary on gentrification or racism. But even on its surface, “Shrek” captures the essence of unlikely friendships and unsuperficial romance, making its happily-ever-after ending feel triumphant.

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