The New York Times today has a feature celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Shrek,” the Dreamworks animated film released on May 18, 2001 that quickly became a box office smash, received wide critical acclaim and went on to win the first Academy Award for best animated feature. Sayeth the Times, “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.” There have already been two sequels, with another on the way.
But over at The Guardian, film critic Scott Tobias isn’t looking back on “Shrek” as a cultural watershed, but as a cynical, sloppy, artistic mess. He pooh-poohs the movie with gusto, writing in part,
It’s hard to account for why Shrek hit the cultural moment as squarely as it did – other than, you know, people seemed to enjoy it – or why it will be celebrated in 20th anniversary pieces other than this one. But it’s worth pointing out how comprehensively bad its legacy remains, opening up the floodgates for other major studios to pile celebrities into recording booths, feed them committee-polished one-liners and put those lines in the mouths of sassy CGI animals or human-ish residents of the uncanny valley. Worse yet, it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time. Those once-upon-a-times were now rendered stodgy and lame, literally toilet paper….there’s an excess of anachronisms and buddy-movie riffs from [Mike]Myers and [Eddie] Murphy that have little relation to the backdrop and a woe-is-me soppiness to the love story between two lonely, misunderstood freaks. (Nothing screams “unearned gravitas” like slipping in a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.)…What’s left is an all-ages film that’s somehow more crude and juvenile in its appeals to adults than children. The grownups in the room can snicker knowingly at Farquaad’s name and the repeated references to his penis size while the kids are left with fart jokes and the wanton diminishment of timeless characters and stories. Last year, the National Film Registry added Shrek to the Library of Congress, which seals its canonization, but it’s remarkable how much of an early aughts relic it’s become, an amber-preserved monument to phenomena (Mike Myers, Smash Mouth, Michael Flatley) that hasn’t stood the test of time.
OK, this critic hates Shrek, and so what? The fact is that “Shrek” succeeded in its goals, which were to entertain audiences of both children and adults, create a franchise, and make money. Therefore “Shrek” was in all respects a “good” piece of popular culture, by definition.
That it may not still resonate with new audiences the way it did 20 years ago is a separate issue: popular culture is not produced for posterity and immortality, but for the moment in time for which it was created. W.S. Gilbert was stunned that audiences still were applauding Gilbert and Sullivan shows 20 years after they were first produced. A hundred years later, the shows are still produced (though they are currently under attack by the political correctness mob). I thought “Shrek” was cheap, lazy, and largely unfunny when I saw it 20 years ago, but my six-year-old son loved it, and the movie theater audience clearly did as well. This means that the movie was “good” according to its own objectives, standards and context, which was popular culture. The opinions of people, no matter how erudite, experienced and sophisticated, who dissent from the public’s verdict literally don’t matter.
You don’t like The Beatles, “Wicked,” Taylor Swift, hip-hop, Marvel movies, “Blackish,” “NCIS” and <gag, ack, yuck>”Imagine”? Fine—but the public does, and that means these are all “good” popular culture. If a critic like Tobias wants to explain what he doesn’t like about a film, that’s fine, and maybe interesting, but he begins with the handicap that most of the world disagrees with him, and he isn’t going to change that. The job of a critic, if he or she is going to be useful and responsible, is to let people who like the kind of art a work of art aspires to be know if that particular work succeeds in being something they will enjoy. What use is a review of a slasher film by someone who hates slasher films?
So “Shrek” is 20 years old, and a piece of popular culture that hit all of its marks. It deserves to be respected for that.