A universally beloved film turned 20 this year, just one year shy of being able to buy itself a beer in Delhi. It spawned three sequels (one ominously titled Shrek Forever After), several video games, a spin-off movie, a musical, a upcoming sequel movie to the spin-off movie, and one very angry review from the Guardian.
What was it about Shrek that so captured our imagination back in 2001? Was it the simultaneous reference and parody of childhood stories that we took to immediately? Was it the crassness of the lead character, smoothed over by an unconvincing Scottish accent? Was it the 'beautiful on the inside' message of the ending, a message as true about the movie as it appeared to be about its lead characters?
Or rather, what was it about 2001 that Shrek captured our imagination then? Was it the fact that quality content had dried up over at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the Metallica to Dreamworks's Megadeth? Or that Pixar had not kicked into gear yet? Was it the fact that standalone movies were still eagerly consumed back then?
I think it's none of the above. I believe Shrek is a cultural icon because the core message is to resist government tyranny in every way possible. Stay with me.
The entire plot is kicked off by a royal edict from Lord Farquaad outlawing all fairy-tale creatures and calling for their arrest. This causes a refugee crisis as fairy-tale creatures flee to the only safe harbour they could find: Shrek's swamp. Shrek, absolutely livid at the infringement of his private property, marches over to Lord Farquaad's living quarters, i.e., the royal castle, and demands that his right in the swamp be declared absolute. Unclear about what the hell Shrek is referring to, Farquaad offers Shrek a deal: rescue Princess Fiona and you can keep the swamp. Thus begins the one-of-a-kind tale of Shrek, the rescuer of princesses, the subverter of Prince Charming expectations, and the maker of fart jokes.
The criminalisation of an entire class of persons, an ensuing crisis of statelessness and the concentration of power in one megalomaniac's hands are serious issues that are perhaps out of place in a light-hearted article about a light-hearted movie that just turned 20. And yet, here we are.
It's because these issues carry so much gravity that it was important to introduce them to children aged 9 and up. Shockingly, these and similar issues were never dealt with with as much moral clarity as in Shrek. It's clear to everyone watching that Farquaad is evil, and compensating for something. And Shrek, ugly and mean and selfish and antisocial as he is, is the good guy, simply because he stood up to monarcho-fascism.
Children, and adults, automatically took to that core message. There is no wisdom in obeying authority for the sake of obedience. What was Shrek supposed to do, invest in high concrete walls and a security system? No ma'am, not when he can simply travel by foot for 3 days, fight a fire-breathing dragon, climb the stairs of the tallest tower, rescue an (initially) ungrateful princess, escape the dragon from before, walk back for 3 days and suffer heartbreak. Yes, Fiona will consent to enter into a legally binding marital contract with him at the end of the movie, but he doesn't know this at the time!
Ogres are made of layers, and through the runtime of the movie, many of these layers are slowly and painstakingly peeled away. Metaphorically speaking, of course. In fact, by the end, Shrek even agrees to have all the fairy-tale creatures stick around in his marshy swampland. This is in direct contrast to the beginning of the movie, where the character's entire motivation for embarking on the odyssey was to reclaim uninterrupted property rights. The real triumph was the friends we made along the way.