If you’ve spent even a few minutes on TikTok, you know that the trends move fast. On one day, a few million users might be filming themselves dancing to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”; the next, your ForYou page might be filled with funny reactions to a filter that shows your face’s supposed symmetry (or lack thereof). But no matter the day, season, or even your content preferences you’re bound to encounter one common thread on the platform: a passionate, enduring love for all things Shrek.
While the DreamWorks comedy about an ill-tempered ogre came out 20 years ago (on May 18, 2001 to be exact), you wouldn’t be out of line for thinking that it was a far more recent release, considering the love the movie currently receives on social media. On TikTok, there are countless videos of fans singing along to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” or quoting Donkey’s famous “we’re making waffles!” line; on Twitter, people regularly debate everything from the soundtrack’s best songs to the franchise’s apparently not-insignificant impact on the MCU.
And it’s not just online. Since 2014, Wisconsin has played host to an annual Shrekfest, where hundreds of costumed fans gather to screen the movie and take part in an onion-eating contest, among other activities entertaining enough for even an ogre to enjoy. There are Shrek COVID face masks, Shrek Croc decals, even a bestselling Shrek candle that features the dude laying in a pool of mud, butt in the air. In 2018, the group behind Shrekfest even released a shot-for-shot remake of the movie, with the scenes crowdsourced from over 200 collaborators and accomplished through a mix of drawings, live action, and varying levels of amateur animation.
On the outside, the extent of the film’s fandom — particularly two decades after it came out — might seem baffling. Shrek was well-reviewed and financially successful, sure, but so were a lot of other movies. It’s far from the only kids’ film of its era to inspire a fandom, and it’s not even the most obvious, considering the lack of Disney princesses or traditionally swoon worthy heroes. The jokes are old, the animation’s dated, and the cast — Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz — are not exactly the box office titans they once were. So what gives?
Well, to paraphrase Shrek himself, the explanation has layers. For one thing, there’s the movie’s determination to buck the norms of its more traditional animated peers. “Even when the film came out, Shrek very much went against all of those fairy tale ideals that we were spoonfed as children,” says Carlye Wisel, a theme park journalist whose podcast, Very Amusing, has devoted several episodes to unpacking Shrek. While it’s now commonplace for animated films to satirize Disney tropes like damsels in distress or “love conquers all” attitudes, Shrek’s self-aware, progressive nature was an anomaly back in 2001 — and that’s not even mentioning the fact that Shrek is apparently Jewish, a rarity among heroes in kids’ movies. “The climax where Fiona is cemented in her ogre form — that felt shocking and thrilling because it flew in the face of the Disney standard. It was a reverse Beauty and the Beast,” notes Kristy Puchko, a film critic and longtime fan. For viewers watching Shrek 20 years ago, she says, “all these subversions were exhilarating.”
A few decades later, the film’s perspective doesn’t just hold up, but somehow feels even more impressive. “As society moves further and further” away from old-fashioned mindsets, says Wisel, “it almost makes sense that we would align with a character who, 20 years ago, was already saying all this stuff was bogus.”
Shrek is also, without a doubt, weird — like, the-hero-is-a-misanthropic-ogre-who-pairs-up-with-a-donkey-to-rescue-a-princess-who’s-actually-also-an-ogre weird. And while the film may follow a fairy tale structure, its humor, visuals, and plot points are far darker and quirkier than most mainstream animated family films (remember the whole gingerbread man torture plotline?). For generations of movie-watchers who’ve seen the same sweet but generic formula repeated time and time again, Shrek’s oddities remain a core element of its appeal — as does its staunch message that being different isn’t a fault, but a strength.
"It almost makes sense that we would align with a character who, 20 years ago, was already saying all this stuff was bogus."
Carlye WISEL, Host of Very Amusing
“Part of the joy of Shrek is that its characters weren’t exactly cuddly, as was the Disney and Pixar standards,” explains Puchko. “They were weirdos and misfits, who could be annoying and gross.” With its protagonist’s unabashed eccentricity and a plot ultimately more about finding your people than fitting in with a crowd, the movie has long offered a kind of sanctuary to viewers who may not recognize themselves in typical animated fare. Says Puchko, “Shrek made space for the weirdos, celebrating us just as we are.”
And while that kind of message would be notable at any point in time, it resonates especially now, thanks to social media’s ability to connect people through their interests, no matter how niche. In the past, those who took part in a fervent fandom for a piece of pop culture outside the Disney/Marvel world didn’t always have spaces to easily celebrate that passion without being forced to put themselves out there in front of potentially judgmental peers. But now, thanks to the rise of welcoming, like-minded communities formed through platforms like TikTok and Instagram, that fear has lessened for many people.
“A lot of people are just becoming not ashamed of their interests anymore,” says Sarah Schauer, a popular TikTok user who’s posted several Shrek-themed videos, including a recent, hilariously straightforward reveal of her home’s Shrek gallery wall that’s earned nearly 1.5 million views. “I know we’re talking about Shrek, but people can talk about how much they love K-Pop now, or how much they love anime. In the past that would’ve been weird, but now it’s like, why are our interests weird?”
Wisel echoes this point. “I’m pretty confident when I was a kid, if I was a ride -or-die Shrek fan, I maybe wouldn’t have been able to build a Shrek community.” Now, though, “it’s so easy,” she continues. “You have a safe space.”
Nowhere can that unique sense of belonging be seen as fully as at Shrekfest, the annual, no-holds-barred celebration started by Grant Duffrin seven years ago. Since the festival’s unusual beginnings (it started because Duffrin and friends saw a fake Facebook event for Shrekfest and, intrigued, decided to make it a reality), it’s played host to upwards of 1,000 people. These attendees are of all different ages, races, genders, and backgrounds, but what they have in common is an unabashed desire to share in their adoration of a particular grumpy ogre. Together, fans take part in the contests, dress up as characters like Lord Farquaad and the Three Blind Mice, and revel in the community spirit. And while the movie may have its fair share of sarcasm, you won’t find anything but genuine appreciation for its impact at Shrekfest.
“I’m Shrek’s #1 fan,” says Effie Fletcher, a Marketing Manager who “made it a mission” to attend the 2019 Shrekfest after hearing about it from friends. Although she arrived at the festival alone (“flying to Wisconsin from LA for a Shrek party is not something everyone would want to do”), she met up with other Shrek obsessives while there and quickly bonded over their shared love. “I still talk to some of them on social media,” she says now. “Shrek brings us together.”
Emily Moore, an Experience Strategist who also attended the 2019 event, agrees “People from all walks of life came together outdoors to celebrate our love for Shrek,” she recalls. “People felt very comfortable expressing themselves.” During her time at the festival, Moore witnessed everything from the popular ogre-like “Roar” contest (the trophy was a golden Shrek) to a game of Shrek volleyball (normal volleyball, but with the players dressed up as ogres), documenting her experience in a TikTok that has almost 1.5 million views. “My friends might have thought I was a tad weird for attending, but I loved being there,” she says.
Shrek “is something that we can all agree on that we like, that unites people,” adds Duffrin, who held 2020's fest virtually, and plans to host 2021's online as well, due to the pandemic. “It has a lot of heart in it.”
Wisel, who spoke to Duffrin about Shrekfest for a 2020 podcast episode and plans to attend in person one day, notes that it’s the earnesty of Shrekfest and its attendees that makes it so special. “When you hear that people are having an onion-eating contest, you start to think maybe it’s something they’re doing just to make a silly joke or a TikTok or for attention,” she says. “But it really is such pure, genuine fun.”
For some fans, that fun comes along with a unique, fulfilling sense of comfort. With its quotable lines, catchy music, and blissfully happy ending, Shrek has become the kind of film that warrants regular rewatches (or a live tweeting session with R29 Movie Club), especially during times of stress. “The DVD lived in my player during college. I turned it on a lot of nights to wind down,” recalls Puchko. Similarly, Schauer says the movie — along with its well-reviewed sequel, Shrek 2 — often acts as a welcome distraction from real-world drama. “It just reminds me of a happy time,” she says. “When you watch it, you feel like you’re sitting in sunshine.”
Even when they’re not watching the film, Shrek devotees are celebrating their love for the titular orge in other ways. Over the last few years, its biggest fans have done everything from painting creative Shrek portraits to designing rugs, with some particularly passionate creatives even recutting scenes with, uh, unexpected songs (search “Shrek call me by your name” at your own risk). Last fall, Abby and Nuvia Zepeda, the founders of Oddball Candles, released their popular “Swamp Ass” candle after posting a joke Instagram of the idea and getting a decidedly not-jokey amount of enthusiastic responses. Since making it for real, the candle has outsold all the brand’s other offerings, so much so that the sisters are currently brainstorming a potential line of other Shrek-themed products to capitalize on the success of the perplexingly adorable item.
“Looking at the people who’ve bought [the candles], it’s been both like, die-hard fans of the movie and also just people who thought it was funny,” says Nuvia, adding with a laugh, “I did not think people loved Shrek as much as they do.”
Intriguingly, many of these obsessives are members of Gen Z, some of whom were not even born when the movie was released. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Whether thanks to Hulu adding Shrek to its streaming options or just the film’s 20-year-old hype, it’s found just as much support from its younger viewers as those who recall watching it in theaters. And perhaps that makes the film’s impact even greater.
“The values and the reasoning behind this movie being made, and what the story is, are so much more important 20 years later,” says Wisel. “I think that if anything, younger people are drawn to it because it is a bit of a discovery and a moment to find out something this good and this weird has been around for so long.”
Whether they’re watching it for the first time or quoting each line by heart, more people than ever are finding themselves drawn to Shrek and the fandom around it. Because in the movie’s joyful, inclusive world, the swamp is big enough for everyone to join.