Shrek, colonialism, and the sands of time

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Before makeup and after. Sanjeev Beekeeper via Flickr

For the students who weren’t alive when it was released

The other day, as I was reading an old Seventeen magazine instead of literally anything else, I was reflecting on cultural changes over the past two decades, and in particular, the fact that there are students attending the U of R right now who have never lived in a world without Shrek. Since I’m [REDACTED] years old, and since this year marked 20 years since the film burst onto the scene, changing everything, I thought I would review it for those who weren’t alive to see it reviewed when it was fresh and young. More importantly, it allowed me to fulfil an obligation to the A&C editor without actually having to put on pants or leave my apartment.

Shrek, for those not in the know, is your standard quest narrative with the twist that it’s deliberately ripping off Disney conventions – like how it opens with a voiceover of our hero reading from a fairy tale story book before tearing out one of its pages and (presumably) using it to wipe himself in an outhouse. Subversive!

Anyway, at the start of the film, Shrek bursts out of the outhouse and onto the scene to the rock music of Smash Mouth, which is another signal that this isn’t your average fairy tale! And remember, this was before the age of COVID, so we had no way of knowing that Smash Mouth would one day sing “I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed” at a superspreader event in Sturgis that probably ended up killing hundreds or even thousands of people with questionable taste in music. All we knew then was that the years started coming and they didn’t stop coming. It was a simpler time. Bush hadn’t even done 9/11 yet.

Shrek’s sartorial choices are pretty inexplicable, primarily because he lives alone and doesn’t seem to care about social conventions, so why even wear pants or that horrid little vest (or maybe bralette?) that looks like it’s made from one of those no-slip mats that your grandmother has on the bottom of her bathtub? His pants are leggings for some reason, and they’re a foul plaid pattern and colour that looks like maybe he ordered them in the waning days of the LulaRoe empire. And I’m not here to body shame Shrek, but it’s very clear that he’s been skipping leg day.

While Shrek is sitting at his kitchen table eating a bowl of eyeballs, he’s blissfully unaware of the imminent arrival of ogre hunters, who want to kill him so they can expropriate his lands and deport undesirables to that location, which is a plot line that has been directly lifted from the history of the colonization of Australia (at this point I paused and hastily Googled “Shrek: post-colonial???” but all I found was one Prezi from 2017 that was pretty shoddily done, so if you’re looking for an idea for a paper, there’s a free one right there).

The film’s animation holds up as something that would be, if not impressive, at least not unimpressive in a movie released today, which is good since it took them four years to animate the thing, which is nearly as long as it took for the US to lose the Iraq war. At one point, while Shrek is explaining to Donkey that ogres are like onions, I recognize that this is a reference to Peer Gynt, something I didn’t notice in 2001, and I wished that someone was around watching with me so that I could loudly draw attention to the fact that I am familiar with the works of Ibsen.

The plot and humour also hold up in ways I won’t get into because I realized that A&C only needs half a page, so I need to wrap this up. I think if this movie were to come out for the first time today, it would receive reviews just as favourable as when it came out 20 years ago (don’t check if the reviews 20 years ago were actually favourable, I certainly didn’t fact check this claim) but we would have had a lot more Buzzfeed articles titled, “20 reasons why Shrek is a body positivity icon we can stan,” which is unbearable. Let me know if you do a paper on “Reclaiming the swamp: a postcolonial approach to analyzing themes of displacement and repatriation in Dreamworks’ 2001 film Shrek” because I’d like to read it.

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