Shrek
If you had a healthy love of this green ogre, you're in luck, Shrek isn't going away anytime soon. (Illustration by Natashna Anderson, School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
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Shrek

Shrekfest and ‘Shrek: Retold’ have helped restore the cartoon phenomenon to his rightful swamp.

This August, hundreds of people will gather in Madison, Wisconsin to celebrate the sixth annual Shrekfest. If it’s anything like previous years, the festival will include onion eating and roaring contests, multiple renditions of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and a screening of the beloved DreamWorks film that inspired it all. Attendees will paint themselves green and strap on a pair of the iconic trumpet ears, participating in a day long party that the AV Club has described as “the death of irony.”

Shrekfest is the brainchild of Grant Duffrin, a Milwaukee-based artist. Duffrin has cinematography credits on a number of indie films, but claims that his life work is his role at the helm of 3GI Industries, the primary organizers behind Shrekfest. In 2014, Duffrin and his friends found a Facebook group supposedly dedicated to organizing a festival for all things “Shrek.”

As serious fans of the lovable ogre, they were disappointed when this group turned out to be a joke and decided to carry out the festival themselves. The event has proven to be enduringly popular, drawing both sincere fans of the franchise and those seeking a bit of bizarre adventure.

Late last year, 3GI cranked up the “Shrek” fandom another notch, releasing “Shrek Retold.” A full-length remake of the original “Shrek,” stitched together from the work of over 200 contributors, the movie is an often-surreal composite of animation and live action. Blending literally hundreds of styles and skill levels, watching the movie is an endlessly entertaining whiplash that can pivot from an inventive and beautifully executed reimagining, to something that hardly represents the original at all.

Shrekfest and “Shrek Retold” represent the latest chapter in the long, strange story of the DreamWorks franchise since its 2001 debut. After the original movie’s warm reception — which included an Oscar for best animated feature — “Shrek” slumped into a familiar pattern of endless sequels and spin-offs. But as the actual series sank further into the bargain bin, “Shrek” began a weird afterlife in the dimly lit corners of the internet.

Over a decade after the original “Shrek,” the online forum ShrekChan was born. Self-declared “brogres” would share images and memes of the beloved ogre and his friends, transforming the cartoon character into a cult figure. In an article for Kotaku, Nathan Grayson explains, “Shrek had outgrown the confines of his holy swamp. He’d become a symbol of all things gloriously sh—y and relentlessly focus-tested from the early ‘00s.” “Shrek” became a meme, supported by a dedicated and prolific community.

ShrekChan was hosted by the imageboard website 4chan, a place infamous for tasteless content that frequently tests the limits of free speech. It was here that someone originally published “Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life,” a story about a 9-year-old boy who adores Shrek so much that he agrees to have violent sex with him. Real nice.

Thanks to its shock value — an important quality online — the story quickly drew attention, with an animated version posted to YouTube in 2014 collecting over 12 million views.

Following the explosion of “Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life,” Shrekchan folded, with its founders explaining that the fandom had been ruined by “spammers and sh—posters.” It seemed likely the online subculture surrounding “Shrek” would continue in its downward spiral of awfulness, with members always seeking to find an even more distasteful context to place the ogre in.

Perhaps it was meant to be that the folding of ShrekChan coincided with the first year of Shrekfest. Contrasted with the increasingly dark content being posted online, the gathering represented a return to the more playful attitude that had defined earlier Shrek-centric communities.

But, as noted by the AV Club, those participating at Shrekfest are distinguished from things like ShrekChan by the way they blur the boundary between satire and sincere appreciation. The work done by 3GI, both through Shrekfest and “Shrek Retold,” can claim some legitimate inspiration from the original movie.

A 2018 festivalgoer explained it best. “It’s cheesy,” he said. “But the premise of the movie is just like, be yourself. You’re allowed to be yourself; everyone is out here just having a good time.” “Shrek” is the story of one ogre’s journey to self-acceptance, something built into the core of events like Shrekfest and projects like “Shrek Retold.”

One young contributor to the remake, a 15-year-old named Alex, told Wired, “I’d never animated anything in my entire life, and I also had about one day to actually make my scene … I eventually decided that I could do an animatic.” An animatic is a storyboard-like series of drawings. His scene is brief and simple, a single shot of pencil-drawn cartoons standing in the grass, but it made the cut along with everything else.

Without a doubt, 3GI’s take on “Shrek” couldn’t exist without the long history of memes that preceded it. There’s still something absurd about adults dressing as fairy tale creatures from a children’s movie, and without an initial period of ironic skewering, it’s unlikely anyone would have had the audacity of proposing an actual festival based around “Shrek.”

But it seems that this irony has given way to something much freer. Whether someone’s enthusiasm for the movies is genuine or not hardly matters; all those attending Shrekfest are united by the common goal of being silly. The ogre has become a rallying point for people’s goofiest, most unselfconscious selves.

By pumping fresh life into the fandom surrounding “Shrek,” Grant Duffrin and his collaborators at 3GI have managed to redeem the meme, and arguably transcend it. After a long and perilous journey through the quagmire of the internet, Shrek has improbably been restored to carry the same message he did nearly 20 years ago: that we’re all all-stars.

Even if “Shrek” isn’t your thing, the festival still may have something to offer. One attendee pointed out, “Just to get this many people together in a park, having fun, enjoying, celebrating, eating food, drinking, laughing, is just so rare.” So, if your schedule is open this August, consider taking a trip to Madison. Sing along to Smash Mouth and stop to smell the onions. You’ll have plenty of company.

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