When Shrek was announced as an inductee into the U.S. National Film Registry in 2020, the response online was mostly raucous laughter. The National Film Registry is the holy grail of achievements for films. Each year only 25 new inductees are chosen for preservation, and each is selected based on their ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic significance’.
In the two decades since the film released, Shrek has ceased being just another kids movie and has entered the realm of memes. It means anything to do with Shrek is often met with ridicule. But there’s something more significant at work here: Shrek was popularised in memes because of its cultural significance, not in spite of it. Its continued popularity is a testament to its quality.
This article has been retimed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Shrek’s release.
While it’s easy to joke about the film, Shrek is incredibly significant and its cultural relevance is now at an all-time high. It made sense to induct it into the National Film Registry. Beyond the film’s impact on the internet and Shrek’s status as a pop culture icon, the arrival of Shrek in 2001 marked a significant turning point in both the animation industry and children’s entertainment as a whole. It even revolutionised movie marketing spin.
When Shrek first released, it put the DreamWorks name on the map. Where previously the animated film landscape had been dominated by Disney’s traditional 2D motion pictures, Shrek came roaring to cinemas with an impressive CGI look and hearty marketing that pushed its popularity through the roof. In 2001, Shrek was everywhere. You could buy yogurt with Donkey’s face on it. In the U.S., Burger King produced Shrek-themed meals. Merchandising for the movie was a masterclass in flooding the market, and it only continued as it grew into a larger franchise.
Beyond simply making a name for DreamWorks, Shrek revolutionised the animation industry. Not only that, but it pushed rival companies to try new things. CGI was an emerging art in the early 2000s but its use in film was still seen as risky due to the cost and skill involved. The resounding success of Shrek buoyed towards more CGI integration and encouraged greater competition with giants like Disney. It was the disruption the animation industry needed to be taken seriously. While it had previously been dismissed for being ‘just’ for children, or as a ‘lower’ form of entertainment, Shrek changed the game.
Rather than simply being a cute story with a moral message, Shrek was designed to entertain people of all ages. It was written to appeal to both adults and children with a mix of racy humour and clever double entendres to keep everyone entertained. It bridged a gap nobody had really acknowledged and helped animation gain a legitimacy it had previously been denied.
Sure, you could argue this lowered the overall tone of children’s entertainment and opened the floodgates for racier and more overt adult content — but Shrek struck a great balance between heartfelt story and lewd jokes with a snappy script and clever writing.
This was a film so significant it was arguably the sole reason the Academy introduced a category for Best Animated Feature for its 2001 award presentation. The prestige and recognition of animated films has continued since Shrek nabbed the first ever award.
To most of us Shrek was a funny, toilet humour-filled movie we watched in cinemas when we were young. As grown adults it’s now become a funny, nostalgic meme. But Shrek is far more important than any of us give it credit for.
There’s a reason why it’s become the only non-Disney animated film to be given a space in the U.S. National Film Registry. If we look at the requirements for induction — a film of ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic significance’ — Shrek marks every box. Its pioneering CGI shaped what animated films could be. It’s left a lasting cultural impact on an entire generation of Millennials and continues to delight young audiences today. With sharp humour and excellent performances all round, it’s earned its spot in history.
Its induction shouldn’t be undermined because of Shrek‘s popularity in internet memes. It should be celebrated.
Long live Shrek.