20 Years Of 'Shrek' And Its Curious, Controversial Scottish Legacy

It's hard to overstate the impact that Shrek made when it premiered 20 years ago. The snarky comedy that ruthlessly mocked fairy-tale tropes and took blatant stabs at Disney helped to redefine the modern American animated movie and put DreamWorks on the map as the most legitimate competition to the House of Mouse. The franchise, which has grossed more money than the Toy Story and Hunger Games series, casts a heavy shadow over the medium. You can easily make the case that Shrek's influence can be found in every major American animation that followed. To this day, it remains a potent pop culture force, with an Oscar, two Cannes Film Festival premieres, a theme park attraction, countless merchandizing opportunities, and even a Broadway musical to its name. Not bad for a film that DreamWorks animators widely assumed would be an inevitable flop.

On the other side of the Atlantic from Jeffrey Katzenberg's dream-house, however, Shrek's legacy is somewhat more complex.

Having already recorded his lines for the title character, Mike Myers (taking over from the late Chris Farley) asked to redo the character with a Scottish accent. He'd previously shown off his surprisingly solid brogue in So I Married an Axe Murderer and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, as well as a number of recurring Saturday Night Live sketches. Katzenberg was so impressed that he allowed the change, despite its immense cost, which led to more riffing and animation changes to accommodate Myers. He later explained that he'd chosen the accent for Shrek because it "sounds working-class and I think ogres would be working-class." The decision paid off. Myers even said that Steven Spielberg himself thought the accent choice had improved the movie. Soon, the most famous Scot in 21st-century pop culture was a cartoon ogre voiced by a Canadian.

Scotland has a complicated relationship with Hollywood's depiction of it. The earliest days of the film industry featured Scottish-focused stories, typically adaptations. There were no fewer than four silent adaptations of J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister before a 1934 sound version gave us Katharine Hepburn rolling her Rs like a broken motorcycle. There are seemingly endless adaptations of The 39 Steps and Kidnapped, plus retellings of the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Such stories were almost exclusively ones of Highland mystery, picturesque scenery, men in kilts, and the overwhelming sense of Scotland as a magical, near-fantastical place. This would reach its zenith/nadir with the infamous musical Brigadoon, an agonizing series of cliches and butchered accents that feels like a bingo card collection of Scottish stereotypes. Like its many Hollywood predecessors, it's Scotland as imagined by people who view the country solely through shortbread tin designs. Its cloying falseness was exacerbated by the now-legendary decision of MGM to shoot the entire production on a sound stage in California because they didn't think the real thing looked Scottish enough for their liking.

Still, there's money to be made in adhering to those trope-ridden expectations. VisitScotland, the nation's tourism board, latched onto Shrek hard, as they had done before with Mel Gibson's deeply jingoistic Braveheart and would later do with Pixar's more culturally invested animation Brave. In 2007, to celebrate the release of Shrek the Third, they created a special tartan for the ogre, something that led none other than Sir Sean Connery to lash out at them for supporting Hollywood over local Scottish cinema. Their hope, according to a press release, was that the character's popularity would encourage the reported 50 million people worldwide who claim Scottish ancestry to investigate their roots and visit the country. It's easier to entice outsiders with the postcard made in America than any of the country's own cultural offerings, which often skew darker, grittier, and more rooted in the lives of urban Scots. Sadly, I don't think many tourists would scramble to book their plane tickets based on Ratcatcher or Young Adam. Shrek gets the job done, or so it is assumed.

Indeed, Shrek, as voiced by Myers and portrayed by DreamWorks, fits into a lot of those eons' old outsider assumptions about Scotland and its people. He's sullen and kind of brutish but not without a sense of humor, which is certainly less twee than the genteel and perennially drunk locals of Whisky Galore. When voiced by Chris Farley, Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson said, "Chris's comedic persona was key to the creation of the Shrek character — a guy who rejected the world because the world rejected him." That certainly fits with a lot of Scots' sense of proud outsider status with Myers playing him as a grouch all too used to having the worst thought of him.

But the assumed negatives are there too, such as Myers' assertion of the Scottish accent as naturally working-class, with the implication that it is somehow rougher or less refined than the American accents of his castmates. Even his admittance that the accent is just funny is part of the problem. Scots like myself are painfully used to being told we sound weird, ridiculous, incomprehensible, or just flat-out stupid. Often, it's used to emphasize a character's weirdness or grotesquery, such as Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons and another Mike Myers creation, Fat Bastard.

Most Scots, however, seem to like Shrek and Willie and this grab-bag of Americanized Scots. They may argue over the specifics but they like the loveable outsider who laughs at his own jokes, doesn't care if you find him weird, and has no real desire to be a hero. There's nothing culturally specific about Shrek's accidental Scottishness but the crumbs are enticing, nonetheless, especially to an audience with not much else to choose from. It's a strange context for the character and for any Scottish tourism industry hoping to latch onto something tangibly promotable. How do you sell a character whose only obvious trait of national identity is an accent?

Even VisitScotland didn't seem to know. When showing off the giant green and brown kilt they presented to Mike Myers (made for a 102-inch waist), they admitted it was a stunt to "explore Shrek's possible Scottish heritage" and that the tartan was a "great opportunity to be able to link our national heritage with such a well-loved film character." Even with that accent, Shrek's Scottishness is flimsy at best, and something that needed to be firmly established. Hey, if Canada doesn't want him, I suppose we will.

11 years later, one American animated movie would get things a little more correct. Pixar's Brave is extremely flawed and chock full of those cultural cliches – haggis! Lots of gingers! Casual violence! Booze! – but the moments where it gets things right are surprisingly on the money. Unlike Shrek, with his very general Scottish accent, Brave is full of different dialects and regional quirks, from the elegant Morningside tone of Queen Elinor to Young MacGuffin speaking in the Northeast language known as Doric (one moment where the oft-indecipherable nature of Scottishness being played for laughs makes sense – Doric really is like that!) Of course, it helps that Brave is full of actual Scottish people who gave extensive notes. Sadly, Disney reverted to the easy joke when Merida popped up in Ralph Breaks the Internet and had the princesses seem almost afraid of her aggressive accent because they didn't know what she was saying.

Scotland's film industry remains small and depressingly underfunded. Beloved local directors like Bill Forsyth have all but retired while critical darlings like Lynne Ramsay have jumped across the Atlantic to keep working. Nowadays, Scotland remains a setting for fantasy projects looking for a scenic backdrop with no specific cultural footprint, although we have popped up in major movies like Avengers: Infinity War (fun fact: the take-away that Wanda and Vision walk past with the 'We will deep-fry your kebabs' sign is actually a jewellery shop!) Like many small nations, Scotland's media messages are primarily moulded by Hollywood, something the country has embraced for marketing purposes. Just check out how prominent Outlander is on VisitScotland's YouTube page.

You can't wholly define a nation of five million people by outside depictions, but you can't exactly do it with local ones either. Inevitably, whether it's due to focusing on bankable forms or the person telling the story or the target audience, things will coagulate into some sort of easily digestible type. Ideas of national identity change too.

Ultimately, money talks louder than any accent, and studios will make what they believe appeals to the mainstream, a bone-headed decision that's led to much more egregious cultural and racial bastardizing than any ogre could accomplish. Shrek is a reminder of how certain nationalist assumptions, regardless of accuracy, retain their potency over the decades thanks to outsider enjoyment. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy them, though. Plenty of Scots have a soft spot for Shrek. As much as the stereotypes about loutish anti-social fighters with sardonic senses of humour can grate, we embrace them for a reason. It still beats Brigadoon.