Can you really call yourself a millennial if you haven’t watched some, or all, of the Shrek movies too many times? I certainly fondly recall middle school periods with substitute teachers who either didn’t know what to teach us or didn’t care and turned on Shrek. My family had a VHS copy that we watched in our van’s built-in VCR on loop during road trips. (Occasionally we’d sprinkle in Hercules and Recess: School’s Out.)
The point, I suppose, is that this series is near-and-dear to my heart, even if I don’t especially like it much of the time, and even actively resent it to some extent. Shrek took with it the entire animation industry for a decade: ugly, irreverent, pop culture reference-heavy CGI comedies with a cast of celebrity voice actors and needle drop-happy soundtracks.
And yet, the series has outlived its own wave of influence. Though its impact is still felt in American mainstream animation, the tides have shifted towards heavily stylized, high-concept stories.
Across 21 years, four Shrek movies and two Puss in Boots spinoffs have hit the silver screen. Rumors of a fifth Shrek persist. So let’s break it down — the not-so-good through the definitely pretty good.
Note: For this list I have included the six feature-length, theatrically-released, DreamWorks Animation films in the Shrek and Puss in Boots series. This rules out the numerous shorts, the fan projects, and Shrek the Musical’s 2013 digital release. Maybe if Shrek 5 is ever released, I’ll do an updated super mega completionist version of this list, but for now, the canon is selective.
I have included with each film its “Is It Good?” rating and, in cases where I’ve written one, a link to the full length review.
6. Shrek the Third (2007)
Is It Good? Not Good (2/8)
Shrek the Third dares to ask: What if the series continued the gag-heavy structure of Shrek 2, but without any funny jokes? That’s a bit harsh: There’s a terrific dream sequence in which Shrek imagines himself a woebegone father that escalates to some surreal conclusions. But it’s anomalous in the film: It has some actual structure and shape, and it’s built around more than a fairy tale or pop culture reference. The plot is a flimsy extension of the second Shrek — with the king recently deceased, Shrek must either become the king or find a suitable replacement who is also heir. This sends him on a chase for the wimpy King “Artie” Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Shrek is facing down the prospect of starting a family with Fiona. It’s a drag, both in tone and in pace, and easily the worst of the series.
5. Shrek 2 (2004)
Is It Good? Nearly Good (4/8)
This is going to be my most controversial placement for sure. After the monster-sized, Oscar-winning success of the first Shrek, much of the cultural dialogue surrounded the hard-PG-rated, pop culture-spoofing jokiness — especially at the expense of Disney. DreamWorks doubled down on this aspect for the second outing, and the result is probably the funniest of the series, but one that sacrifices what I most loved about Shrek in the first place: Its sense of grand adventure in the midst of a world that’s a decayed parody of high fantasy. Shrek 2 finds significantly less character development, a Meet the Parents journey completed in a propulsive opening act, and then lots and lots of hi-jinks. The highlight is unquestionably the “Holding Out for a Hero” climax which is a terrific, funny set piece with some kaiju flavor.
4. Shrek Forever After (2010)
Is It Good? Good (5/8)
Something really special was happening at DreamWorks circa 2008-11. Between this, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and the Shrek spinoff one ranking higher on this list, the studio had the impeccable ability of turning potential straw into earnest gold. For the fourth outing, the crumbling Shrek franchise took a hard pivot in tone, ditching the gag-vehicle structure of parts 2 and 3 for something much more interested in characters and arcs and worldbuilding. It is a bit less funny than the two entries that precede it, but given how little it seems to care about telling jokes, the fact that it’s still has some solid laughs is a major win. The story brings It’s a Wonderful Life to Far Far Away, imagining a scenario where Shrek had never been born. It makes a potent thematic echo of the first movie where Shrek must revisit the “happily ever after” he only reluctantly accepted in the first place. The animation is much improved from earlier outings, though there’s something uncanny about the ogres’ eyes this time around. Shrek 4 is a solid, surprisingly serious adventure — even with the annoying Rumpelstiltskin villain.
3. Puss in Boots (2011)
Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)
Comedy is subjective, but I always thought the Puss in Boots character as introduced in Shrek 2 is a lot less funny than his reputation. The glowing kitty eyes gag was funny the first time, and exactly zero of the seventeen-or-so subsequent times it was used in the series. For that reason, I held out on seeing his spinoff adventure until just this year, figuring it wasn’t for me. Boy, was I wrong. Puss in Boots is an incredible surprise: It makes the character genuinely interesting and fun well beyond his spoofy conception. Given that he was always pitched as a Zorro knock-off, it makes sense that this his film is essentially a Zorro story, with some heist shenanigans sprinkled in. His antihero-to-hero arc is effective. Selma Hayek (perfect casting) voices an outstanding foil in Kitty Softpaws, and Antonio Banderas is terrific as the lead voice actor. The set pieces are a delight. Puss in Boots is a winner.
2. Shrek (2001)
Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)
I do have significant heartburn about the DreamWorks Animation celebrity-voiced CGI “comedy” factory that this launched, always the ugly step-sister to Pixar’s towering achievements of the era. But I think the relentlessness with which DreamWorks pursued Shrek imitators speaks to how well Shrek worked in the first place. The tone of the movie is astonishingly balanced: In addition to the often-dopey, occasionally-clever Disney and fairy-tale spoofs, the story is also a sweeping quest and romance starring a reluctant, misanthropic hero. Goofs and heart are pretty equal in measure. Mike Myers’ caricatured vocal performance plumbs some emotional depths, though Eddie Murphy is squarely in his wheelhouse and Cameron Diaz is completely flat. John Powell co-writes an excellent, yearning score. And, yeah, it’s really damn funny, and an icon to millennials. Who cares if the animation looks like ass?
1. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)
Is It Good? Exceptionally Good (7/8)
It really isn’t that much of a surprise that Puss in Boots 2 is good. DreamWorks Animation has semi-sneakily been the most adventurous mainstream American animation studio of the past decade. What is a surprise is just how good this is: In addition to being a heartfelt reckoning with obsolescence, it’s a trippy and kinetic adventure across a morphing “wishscape.” The action scenes transform into super-stylized, flying-camera, anime-inspired battles, often in inventive settings. It’s very funny and it has one of the best villains in animation history. What more could you want? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: Bring on Shrek 5.
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One reply on “Movies in the Shrek Franchise Ranked”
I earnestly can’t remember if I’ve seen any Shreks besides the first (I don’t *think* I’m young Gen X, it wouldn’t really track), but I’m in the same boat viz. PIB1, assumed it was junk and watched it recently, and could not have been more surprised.