Ten years ago today, Shrek 2 was released in theaters and became the highest-grossing animated film of all time in the United States, a record it still holds. That anniversary is very important for some people on the internet. It's just not the people you'd think.
The internet is full of inexplicable trends, in-jokes, and parody concepts that are and should be impenetrable to many a casual browser. There are useful sites that seek to explain the genesis and popularity of these ridiculous and impenetrable memes, but they are informational more than anything.
I don't profess to fully understand how the internet's obsession with Shrek came about, nor can I explain to what level it's purely ironic, but there's something about it that just makes sense. The Shrek franchise represents everything that was initially exciting and then quickly patronizing about the early '00s. It's symbolic of so many things we briefly loved before quickly realizing their emptiness.
I'm perhaps getting ahead of myself. There is a fervent and surprisingly recent trend of warped internet love for the Shrek franchise that first sprouted up around 2010 and feels, at least on the surface, laced with layers of irony. Some Shrek fans call themselves "Brogers," a wink at the My Little Pony fans dubbed "Bronies." At least one sub-section of this fandom revolves around pornographic slash-fiction and the phrase "Shrek Is Love." Intentionally crappy Shrek fan-art and animation is another cornerstone; there's also passionate devotion for Smash Mouth's pop hit "All Star," which featured in the first Shrek film and symbolizes the kind of cheesy rock that dominated mainstream radio at the turn of the millennium.
As with all good internet memes, it feels like one giant agreed-upon joke. No one ever admits that the Shrek series is pretty crappy, even though DreamWorks drove it into the ground as hard as it possibly could. The first Shrek was critically acclaimed and an Oscar winner; the second was among the biggest money-makers in film history, but was the beginning of a sharp fall-off in quality. All four films spoofed Disney mythology and the tired dynamic of the beautiful damsel in distress, but the sequels' main laughs relied more on cheap topical gags and flimsy celebrity cameos. None are well-remembered.
It’s 10:10 a.m. on the east coast and… ●●●▬▬▬ஜ۩۞۩ஜ▬▬●●● SHREK 2 IS 10 YEARS OLD ●●●▬▬▬ஜ۩۞۩ஜ▬▬●●●— Brian Feldman (@BAFeldman) May 19, 2014
I noticed a while ago that Wire contributor Brian Feldman was in on the Shrek gags and chatted with him about the Shrek 2 anniversary. His take was similar to my initial read on the phenomenon, which is that it isn't just the simple anti-comic joke of liking something that sucks. "I think Shrek is really a shorthand for everything that was popular in the early aughts, before the internet folded in on itself," he posits. "This was sort of the first instance of a postmodern children's thing selling out…it's this odd mix of both admitting affection, but also that it's kinda shitty."
The first Shrek film was a genuine four-quadrant hit: kids loved it and so did critics, but so did snarky young teens like myself at the time, who appreciated its upending of the films we'd grown up with. The second Shrek film spawned spinoffs like this Simon Cowell-starring American Idol spoof, and it was downhill from there.
Shrek 2 was a legitimate phenomenon, making close to a billion dollars worldwide. It remains the highest-grossing animated film ever at the domestic box office. "Shrek is shorthand for that weird stretch of a couple years," Feldman says. "DreamWorks quickly wore out its welcome with smug pop culture-referencing animals, but this was the honeymoon period."
The fall from grace was remarkably rapid. Shrek 2's success encouraged DreamWorks to greenlight two sequels and a spinoff, but while Shrek the Third did fine ($322 million domestically), Shrek Forever After took a hundred million less, and 2011 spinoff Puss in Boots essentially made its budget back ($150 million). While there's still chatter of a Puss in Boots sequel, DreamWorks seems to have turned its eyes elsewhere.
Of course, the joke of Shrek's mediocrity was then filtered through the internet's many weird joke filters, which end up in a weird mix of sincerity and surrealism. ShrekChan has a sub-channel filled with horrible fan art labeled "Shart". Others make videos along the lines of this demented and quite NSFW video that proclaims "Shrek is Love" while essentially depicting a scene of CGI assault.
That video and its duplicates have been viewed over three million times.
This goes on and on and on. Buzzfeed's weird-internet expert Katie Notopoulos thinks the series' popularity with people who are now in their 20s was key, and that things have just snowballed from there. "There's sort of a momentum to it," she says. "There's a few Shrek jokes, and then Shrek starts to be just like the stand-in for anything that's like generic entertainment, when you're a making an ironic joke or something. It's also a funny word."
As with so many internet memes, Occam's Razor also applies—the simplest answer is that Shrek has a funny, stupid face, and putting that face in a weird place provokes a cheap laugh. "There's something kind of funny about an ogre doing things," Notopoulos says. "Like, an ogre fucking, that's funny. I'd look at that."
Awl contributor Alan Hanson has poked ShrekChan and other fansites like it, and unsurprisingly found a dark expanding universe of metaphor calcifying around the original set of nonsensical jokes. "A lot of Shrek content is him making awful faces, being very leery," he says. "Children's movies and fairytales are already inherently very dark, and Shrek on its own tries to show the even darker side of that, so it's almost the natural progression to get into the real "swamp" of Shrek, the "Drek" as they say."
According to Hanson, "If Shrek is love, Drek is everything that's not Shrek/love." According to their code words, your apartment is your "swamp," which "is lovely because it's your place, made of the things that comfort you, even if they're gross and unliked by others." In that way, the original gloopy message of the Shrek movie has looped back around. If you want to be happy, just be yourself.
At the same time, Hanson notes, "Drek is the opposite of that, and is sometimes personified as a blue version of Shrek. If you are against loving Shrek or loving that lifestyle, you can also be called a Farquaad. Then it gets pretty derogatory past that, lot's of f-words and n-words unfortunately." Shrek may be love, but the internet is still the internet.