“Shrek” Ethics, Popular Culture, Critics And The Meaning Of “Good”


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.

16 thoughts on ““Shrek” Ethics, Popular Culture, Critics And The Meaning Of “Good”

  1. Call me a curmudgeon all you want, but I agree with Scott Tobias one hundred percent. Children’s cartoons have been ruined by “Shrek” and its snarky, smarmy, potty-mouthed, allegedly adult progeny. I was horrified seeing the stuff our grand kids were watching a few years ago when they were in their prime morning cartoon watching ages. I just don’t see anything wrong with a critic being right. Should he have said, “Okay, I know most of you are morons, so you’re really going to like this movie.” Sure there’s money to be made giving the people what they want, but so what? There’s a lot to be said for having artistic standards. A dissenting voice or two are good for things. You can say “Okay Boomer” until the cows come home, but I guess having grown up on Warner Brothers and Rocky and Bullwinkle, I’m spoiled for really funny cartoons that appeal to all ages of children, even adult ones.

    • Hehehe, now that has me thinking of my brother and I, both grown adults by this time, doing a fake voice imitation of Rocky and Bullwinkle mocking out shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

      Boris Badenov: I will now light the fuse of the Secret Bombing Shoe… oh no, is moose and squirrel!

      Bullwinkle: Hang on Rocky, I’ll hold him down, you hit him with the fire extinguisher! (gdang!)

      Badenov: Ugh, being hit with the fire extinguisher leaves me so put out….

      • “Moose and Squirrel must die!”

        “Boris! Darlink!”

        From “Out of Gas in Moscow,” or “Fuels Rush In.”

  2. (shrug) When Shrek hit I was not interested at all, and by the time my niece was old enough for those kind of movies she (somewhat thankfully) gravitated more toward Frozen. Tastes within a genre are as individual as fingerprints, and mine just didn’t run toward it. I just don’t find parody amusing, especially not parody that tries to deliver a well-known Very Important Message (yes, I get that you can’t judge a book by its cover, yes, I get that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yada yada, yada), while making fart jokes and double-entendres. Be silly, be serious, but trying to be both just doesn’t do it for me. But hey, if it put backsides in seats, that’s good. What I do object to are “historical” films that butcher the history.

    • You and me both. I watched, “Warm Springs” with Kenneth Branagh as FDR a couple of weeks ago. Sliced, diced and cubed that story.

  3. My husband just emailed me about this particular article. Full Disclosure: I have a grudge against Tobias (and, to be frank, my husband) for spoiling the end of James Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” run with what he certainly thought was a well-worded Tweet referencing Stempel’s taking a dive on a question about the movie “Marty” that my husband didn’t recognize would make me realize that Holzhauer was going to lose.

    Sure, it hasn’t aged well, but “Shrek” did what it had to do. Studios want to make money. If they can make money with recognizable names over professional voice actors, they will do it and it’s not really wrong to do so. Of course, I did blink a few times wondering why noted voice actor James Arnold Taylor (“Star Wars: The Clone Wars”) was featured in the Netflix special, “The Last Blockbuster”. That was never satisfactorily answered for me. So it’s a trade-off. He can appear in a documentary about a subject seemingly unrelated to him to make money and Mike Myers can do voiceover work to do the same.

    I’m not a fan of double entendres either, but the kids aren’t the target audience for those.

    When Tobias was young, did he understand every nuance of what Catwoman often said to Batman in the ’60s TV show? I certainly didn’t until I was an adult and couldn’t believe what I heard. About 20 years ago, I was flipping through channels until I ran into an episode of “Three’s Company”. I watched that show all the time as a kid. I even remembered what the episode in question was about and some of the dialogue, too. Until John Ritter said something that made me do a double take and ask, “What did he just say? I don’t remember that.” Of course, the line had always been there, but I’d been too young to understand it so it went over my head.

  4. This is a rare situation…. I agree with you, Jack, but I’m surprised that I do.

    I’d have thought that you’d dislike Shrek. I’m not sure whether Shrek was a driver of the coarsening of language, or a symptom of it, but it was definitely an early stakeholder in the phenomenon. Previous to it, adult cartoons were obviously for adults, I’m thinking Heavy Metal or Aeon Flux While, Shrek was an adult cartoon marketed to children. And while children might not have got the references of “Farquaad” (Fuck-wad), the high school stoners stumbling out of a hotboxed carriage, or the or the swimsuit edition of “Pork Illustrated”, it’s hard not to notice Donkey being referred to as an “Ass” throughout the movie, or the scene with Farquaad snapping Gingy’s legs and waterboarding him. I remember my cousin, who watched it with his eight year old, relate to me that it was the only time he’d ever turned a movie off halfway, because he didn’t want his kid repeating lines.

    • Haha, that’s why my family didn’t trust me reading classics like “The Five Chinese Brothers” with my niece, for fear of me doing bad accent work and her repeating it later.

      “Once upon a time there were five Chinese blothers and they arr rooked exactry arike. The fust Chinese blother could swarrow the sea. The second Chinese blother had an ilon neck. The third Chinese blother could stletch and stletch his regs..” You get the idea.

      Of course they didn’t want my brother and sister-in-law getting the call that “Ah yes, this is L’s teacher, and you should be aware that she was doing bad Chinese accent work in front of her classmates. Mrs. Chen called to complain.”

      However, I DID get away with teaching her the “smell mop” joke for Joke Day at school. For those uninitiated it goes:

      Knock! Knock!

      Who’s there?

      Smell mop.

      Smell mop who?

      Ewwwww! I’m not gonna smell your poo! 😀

      Part of the job of an uncle is to help a niece get into the mischief she hasn’t thought of herself and her grandparents don’t dare teach her.

      • Nah, we agree more than we disagree, but there are topics where we very often disagree (drug legalization, off the top of my head). I expected we’d disagree here, and was surprised that we didn’t.

        • I find Jack’s take on the irreplaceable importance of knowing popular culture interesting but pretty much an outlier in his capacious and judiciously stocked pantheon of his ideas.

  5. Say all that you want about CGI animation… The fact remains that the greatest piece of animation that has ever been or ever will be done is Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

    (followed by “Rabbit of Seville”)

    • I’m pretty convinced Chuck Jones’ guys used our infant daughter and then her infant daughter, our grand daughter, as the model for Elmer Fudd’s face, although we called our daughter “Bugs” because she had big, bug eyes and cheeks like Bugs Bunny. We later caller he Bunny until she was old enough to insist on being called by her more serious, given first name.

  6. Shrek was good for a laugh when I was 17, but to look back on it now as some sort of cultural milestone is kinda funny. It would be like saying, “20 years ago, Limp Bizkit captured the hearts of America and became a voice of a generation…” I mean it might technically be true, but I wouldn’t call attention to it.

  7. Shrek the movie was actually better than the book. Is it a favorite film? No. But it was what it was. Preferring someone to be their real self wasn’t a bad message.

    The adult content in cartoons has been around since Merry Melodies. I watched lots of salivating wolves, bait and switch courtships, and dialogue that I didn’t get until I was a teen. Is a fart joke any worse than scantily clad nightclub singers?

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