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Shrekfest 2017: a multi-layered experience

During my senior year of high school, I went through a bit of a Shrek phase. My friend Scott and I would play the 2001 film’s opening song, Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” on a loop in class, and sing it as we walked down the hallways. I knew every word, note and cheesy record-scratch sound effect of the late-90s rock hit by heart, not having any use for this knowledge aside from amusing friends and annoying teachers. But on Sept. 3 of this year, my moment finally arrived.

Shrekfest, which must be the largest gathering of Shrek enthusiasts on the planet, is held annually on Labor Day weekend at James Madison Park in Madison, Wisconsin. This year’s edition, which my friends and I attended, featured not only one, but two full-length sing-alongs to Smash Mouth’s biggest hit. I was far from the only attendee who knew all the lyrics (one fan even had them painted on his back as a tribute), and this love for all things even slightly Shrek-related – the music, the merchandise, the onions – made the day a truly magical experience.

A DVD collection of Shreks greatest hits - and more - was one of the raffle prizes.
A DVD collection of Shrek’s greatest hits – and more – was one of the raffle prizes.

At this point, you probably have a few questions, like: why does this festival exist? Why is it in Wisconsin, of all places? Is it serious or a joke? Let’s back up a few years. In 2014, around the peak of Shrek’s Internet meme status, an event called Shrekfest mysteriously appeared on Craigslist and Facebook, promising an extensive lineup of Shrek-themed games and film screenings to be held at a Madison park. The posts turned out to be a hoax, but comedy group 3GI, based in nearby Milwaukee, quickly stepped in to make the festival a reality.

My friends and I were familiar with 3GI through their hilarious Web videos spoofing Shrek, video games, McDonald’s and more, and after watching highlights of the first three festivals on YouTube, we decided it was time to make the seven-hour drive from Lincoln to Madison for Shrekfest 2017 – and we were not disappointed.

Hundreds of festival-goers donned ogre ears, green face paint and costumes (I personally wore a hand-drawn Shrequille O’Neal T-shirt). Swampy beverages were served. DJs blasted music that was either featured in a Shrek film or might as well have been. Fans competed in several high-stakes games, including the famous onion-eating contest. A bearded man known as “Shrek Jesus” read from his “Book of Shrek.” Passerbys expecting a normal Sunday afternoon at the park looked on in bewilderment. And as darkness descended, everyone sang and quoted along to a full screening of the original Shrek film.

All Shrek fans will recognize this classic sign.
All Shrek fans will recognize this classic sign.

But was it serious? Did these people taking their obsession to ridiculous extremes genuinely enjoy the Shrek franchise, or was this just some elaborate exercise in irony? Were all these proclamations of love for the big green ogre secretly mocking him?

It would be easy to write the festival off as such, given that an audience of largely teenagers and 20-somethings (although some families were in attendance) were celebrating an intellectual property aimed primarily at children. But as the credits rolled, it was clear to me that the Shrek community’s relationship to the source material is much more complex than that. As Shrek himself might say, it has layers.

Shrek’s resurgence as an Internet meme in the mid-2010s, years after the last film’s release, was certainly fueled by a cynical reaction to the character’s ubiquitous status as a consumerist icon. Countless unauthorized images and videos have featured Shrek in a variety of distorted, disturbing contexts, clearly pushing back against the onslaught of sequels, spinoffs, products and promotions of the last decade and a half. And while the very existence of Shrekfest is deeply rooted in Internet culture, I found the festival to have a decidedly more sincere (but still very comedic) tone.

Rather than making fun of it, Shrekfest’s core audience has embraced the absurdity of a franchise which started with a truly great film, then grew to be much more expansive than it probably had any right to be, but somehow fit the larger-than-life personality of the ogre himself. Shrekfest is about Shrek, but it’s also about more than Shrek. It’s about laughter, and friendship. It’s about intentionally taking our love for a character from our childhoods way too far to the point where the obsession itself becomes something to celebrate.

Above all else, it’s very hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it for yourself (just ask our confused Lyft driver). If any of this piqued your interest, or if you just want to see one of the most unique events the Midwest has to offer, I would highly encourage you to mark your calendar, grab some friends and make the drive to Madison for Shrekfest 2018. Just like Shrek, it is definitely one of a kind.

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    When is the next Shrekfest?!!!!

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