The Shrek movies have an odd cult following. Shrek has been memed, idolized, and ultimately cemented as a part of pop culture that’s here to stay. Shrek fandom, though, extends beyond the dark corners of the internet: Shrek was a national movement, and the franchise has the numbers to back it up. The series has received everything from Academy recognition to critical acclaim. To date, the series is the 14th highest grossing franchise of all time, only behind the likes of Ice Age, Toy Story, and Despicable Me. A Shrek 5 is even in the works, and is rumored to be released in 2019. Shrek was a phenomenon every millennial experienced and likely participated in.
But what exactly made the Shrek movies such a smash hit? Sure—the movies hit the nail on the head with adaptations of our favorite fairy tales, Shrek’s grumpy obstinateness, Donkey’s brilliant sassiness—but nothing boosted them to their critical acclaim like their soundtrack.
Shrek (released in 2001) sonically stood out from its competitors with catchy, upbeat songs from a variety of artists. Other top grossing movies that year were Lord of the Rings, Monsters, Inc., and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Epic features like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had mostly classical soundtracks, inspiring fear, grandeur, and awe, while sticking to the basics of traditional sound. Monsters, Inc. had original music with everything written for them. Shrek, however, simply compiled and repurposed pop and rock songs.
Most of us could probably sing along to quite a few of the tracks listed solely by memory. The first Shrek soundtrack includes “Stay Home” written by Self, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and “I’m a Believer” by Neil Diamond, performed by Eddy Murphy. Shrek deviated from the typical sound theory of films, where music is meant to come second to the visual. That is, music ought to enhance the action on screen, but never eclipse it. Shrek blew this tradition out of the water, though, and made these well–known feel–good songs the center of attention. They’re all undeniably catchy, rhythmic, and high energy. As viewers, we want to watch more, if for nothing else than the auditory payoff of hearing our favorite songs.
But perhaps the most unique thing about the Shrek soundtrack is that it elevated these songs, transforming them into something else entirely. The perfect example of this is “All Star,” by Smash Mouth, which would later become the quintessential Shrek song. The song plays over the opening title sequence, and in many ways feels like the main event, more so than the green ogre we see lumbering around on screen. This part of the film feels more like a music video for “All Star” than it does a feature for Shrek.
The Shrek audio team perfected the art of compendium. Repurposing pop favorites gave the movies an edge that comedy, acting, or animation couldn’t give them. Shrek stands the test of time, and much of that is owed to its killer soundtrack.