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Crossover Texts: Why is Skrek Still Funny? Adult Humor in “Shrek” (Maria Bartolotta)

Crossover texts, or cross-writing, involves “migrating” texts, or books or other media that were made for one audience, but end up appealing to another.  The Cinderella fairy tale adaptation of The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch teaches some great lessons about not being shallow, but the reception from adults was possibly much more enthused than that from children.  Crossover texts in regard to age has to do with sources of entertainment or instruction which were written for children but also have a following consisting of adults, or made for adults but also appeals to children.  Some books and movies are written explicitly for children or explicitly for adults, for example an alphabet learning book for young children or a book that teaches older adults how to best enjoy their retirement.  However, there is some literature that despite being mostly intended for one audience, still gestures toward another.  One example of this is adult humor in children’s movies.  There are a lot of movies that are primarily meant to attract a child audience, but the makers of the film know that those children aren’t getting to the movies or pressing play on the DVD player themselves.  Movies like DreamWorks’ “Shrek” do an effective and hilarious job of acknowledging the older, more savvy people in the audience with subtle nods to adult responsibilities, pop-culture references, sneaky allusions to adult relationships and sex, and mentions of drugs and alcohol.


Adult Responsibilities and Topics

The fact that the entire Shrek movie is a parody of what some would call outdated fairy tale values is something that adults might appreciate more about the film in the first place.  Children could be familiar with classic fairy tales as well, but adults are more familiar with the cliché aspect of the stories.  The movie opens with a voice reading a fairy tale book, but then the audience finds out that the narrator of the introduction is Shrek.  He is reading it on the toilet and then rips a page out to use as toilet paper.  He says, “Like that’s ever gonna happen!” and then we hear the toilet flush.  He literally wipes his ass with the old-time version of the fairy tale love story.

Aside from the satirical premise of the film, there are also specific allusions to adult responsibilities that children typically do not know much about.  Adults are familiar with the hassle of parking and finding a car in a crowded amusement park facility, while children might not pick up on why it’s so funny that a parking area is called “Lancelot.”  Adults also generally have more experience with responsibilities and topics such as:

  •  Legal matters: one of the three little pigs explains why all the magical creatures had to leave their homes (“He huffed, and he puffed… and signed an eviction notice”)
  •  Politics and current events: the gingerbread man is tortured because the castle guards are trying to get him to disclose information, and he is waterboarded… with milk… “milkboarded”…?
  •  Real estate knowledge: Donkey and Shrek arrive at the treacherous tower in the middle of a volcano to try to rescue the princess, and comment sarcastically, “Sure it’s big enough, but look at the location!”
  •  Cosmetic hygiene: Donkey tries to flatter the female dragon by complimenting her beauty, commenting on her lovely smile and asking her if she’s had teeth bleaching done
  •  Stress and mental health care: Donkey states that “before this is over I’m gonna need a whole lot of serious therapy.”
  •  Puns, wordplay, and swearing: Shrek is thanking Donkey when Donkey replies, “Now don’t get all sloppy on me, no one likes a kiss-ass.”


Pop-Culture References

One of the most prominent realms of pop-culture references represented in “Shrek” is music.  Donkey is always the one to break out in song and sing something that is relevant to the situation, but the tracks he chooses are generally from adult generations.  In the beginning when Donkey is trying to become friends with Shrek, he belts out, “’Cuz I’m all alone, there’s no one here beside me, and my problems have all gone, there is no one to deride me, but you got to have friends-” before the ogre gets annoyed and cuts him off, which is the song “Friends” by Bette Midler from 1973.  He also starts to sing “On the Road Again,” a song from around 1980 by Willie Nelson, “If you like Pina Coladas” by Jimmy Buffett, and “Try a Little Tenderness” made popular by artists like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Bolton.

Other hints toward adult-oriented pop-culture include the old TV game show “The Dating Game” from the 60s and 70s which featured someone picking a date out of three people they couldn’t see, just based on their answers to questions.

 The magic mirror shows Lord Farquaad three different princesses with a cheesy introduction about their likes, dislikes, fairy tale history, and oftentimes dire circumstances.

Shrek also finds himself in a wrestling ring where he uses a folding chair as a weapon like in old-school WWF wrestling.  Fiona proves herself a fighter of equal caliber when she mimics impossible martial arts moves from Kung Fu movies, including the satirical shot of her hovering in midair, camera panning all around her in a circle, and wiping her brow before she kicks two men in the face at once.

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Adult Relationships and Sex

“Shrek” sneakily includes many (somewhat) subtle sexual allusions.  Lord Farquaad is very short, but his castle is incredibly tall.  On a couple of occasions, Shrek and Donkey say that he is “compensating for something,” but it is left up to the audience whether they mean his height or his genitals.  When Robin Hood shows up in the forest, his merry men sing a song about him where they say, “What he’s basically saying is he likes to get – ” and the rhyme scheme makes the mature audience members expect the word “head” to come next – a comically-placed reference to oral sex.  Donkey is also awoken from a wet dream in the morning after camping, and later tells Shrek to “wake up and smell the pheromones.”

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Drugs and Alcohol

I would assume that Shrek is an adult over the age of 21, regardless of what drinking laws may be in this magical land, and it’s not so bad if he wants to enjoy a drink every now and again.  He snacks on eyeballs and prepares himself a “dirty” martini, ogre style.  Later, when he’s about to be attacked by knights on Lord Farquaad’s orders, he busts open a large barrel and tries to reason with them by asking, “Can’t we just settle this over a pint?”

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It’s also worth checking out this hilarious clip from the sequel “Shrek 2” in which a show called “Knights” is modeled after the TV show “Cops.”  The horse calls out “police brutality,” the knights use a pepper grinder instead of pepperspray, and the cat swears that the cat-nip they find on him isn’t his.

“That’s uhh, not mine.”



“Shrek” is still funny to viewers of an older age because of the appeals to adult sensibilities.  Movie makers strategically peppered in adult humor to make this picture a great children’s movie that also makes a gesture toward adults that keep them laughing too.

[Undocumented multimedia source: All images are screenshots taken from the DVD I own.]



  1. jaynamiller says:

    I agree that having subtle adult innuendos in children’s movies are a way for everyone in the audience to enjoy the movie, and is a strategic move that may even help the film be more successful. Another example of this in Shrek was when Shrek and Donkey arrive at Lord Farquaad’s castle, and they find the information kiosk. What then proceeds is seemingly harmless dolls singing a welcome song, and providing a set of rules on how to behave. Among those rules, they say, “Keep your feet off the grass, shine your shoes, wipe your… face.” The hint at a word that rhymes with “grass” is obvious to adults, but likely not so clear to children. It’s moments like these that make Shrek a crossover film which adults and children can both enjoy.

    • tanroselane says:

      I agree. I think it doesn’t do any harm to appeal to adults, especially because the kids have no idea what the jokes even mean. I used to laugh at jokes I didn’t understand in movies but one sticks out to me; I was at an after school rec program watching an Aladdin sequel. Jasmine stares in amazement as a wedding gift of hers (a mirror) begins floating in the air and talking as an oracle when the Genie exclaims, “Girlfriend! where did you register?!” I giggled and a rec counselor looked at me and said, “ you even know what that means?” Just goes to show that kids do not know half of the things said in movies meant for children!

  2. danagabiti says:

    While I think Shrek is a hysterical movie and is probably in my pantheon of favorite animated movies, I can’t help but wonder if the innuendos are needed to keep adult audiences entertained. I’ve seen a lot of movies keep adults entertained, but at the same time not subject young children to the prospect of somewhat foul language. Shrek already worked well for an adult audience because it was in its very nature a parody of the whole fairy tale genre. Adults understand that kind of satire while a child simply doesn’t.
    Other “children’s movies” have done well but without resorting to somewhat foul humor. An immediate instance that comes to mind is Toy Story when Mr. Potato Head calls Hamm “an uncultured swine” after Hamm doesn’t find Potato Head’s picasso look amusing.
    I agree that adults need to be kept busy in children’s movies, but I disagree that it has to be done in a way that’s provocative.

  3. julia0991 says:

    I really enjoyed your post! You have so many great examples of adult humor that is present in Shrek. The idea of the parody of the traditional fairy tale makes Shrek enjoyable for adults. However, this idea was definitely not meant for children because most children are not cognitively developed to understand such parodies. I think that Shrek is a playful film that uses adult humor which some people may believe is too much for a child’s viewing. I personally think that as long as children viewing the film are not understanding the foul humor, it is not harmful. I do understand that children often imitate things that they see on television. However, if they are not truly understanding, they will be less likely to remember the jokes.

  4. erdoll says:

    I am the type of person who goes to see every Pixar movie in theaters and after every one that I see, I always comment on how much children’s movies have changed since I was younger. As a child, I watched movies like Cinderella, the Lion King, and The Little Mermaid over and over again. While these movies probably have very subtle adult jokes weaved throughout, they are more or less solely geared toward young children. This is probably why my parents were rarely sitting in the living room watching with me. However, recent children’s movies do exactly the opposite. Sometimes I feel as these movies are almost geared to adults, but drawn with cute cartoons so kids like them too. While I sometimes think these movies go a little too far with adult humor and I feel my jaw drop at some of the things that get slipped into the film, I think overall this change has been extremely positive. Parents no longer mind bringing their children to the movies or sitting down in the living room on a Saturday night with their kids.

    One of my recent favorite Pixar movies is Wreck It Ralph. This movie does not have nearly as many obvious instances of adult humor as Shrek, but it is definitely a movie that parents can appreciate and feel comfortable bringing their children to. The references to old video games like Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat are things that a child probably would never understand, but parents find humorous without being over the top. It brings parents back to the times when they were children, and what it was like to be in the arcade for hours. Furthermore, this movie shows a true lesson to children that being true to yourself will allow you to accomplish anything, but adults can appreciate the movie without wanting to tear their hair out.

    • Emily, I think your example of Wreck It Ralph is a great one. While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I think it’s 80s pop culture references, and the nostalgia those references are meant to play upon, are great examples of children’s culture reaching out to adults. In fact, if humor is one way writers and producers lure adults into seeing movies purportedly meant for child audiences, then I think nostalgia is certainly another.

  5. Great post, Maria! I think your extensive examples — and your readers’ comments — get at something always at the center of discussions about crossover texts: what is appropriate? In appealing to adults, are the writers and producers of Shrek creating a text that is not suited for children? I’m a fan of Shrek, and I think it’s probably true that many child viewers don’t grasp many of the innuendos you record here, but I assume that some viewers would take offense at references to foul language or sexual situations.

    It makes me wonder — does the book the film is based on, William Steig’s Shrek, make similar gestures to adult readers?

  6. erinholden says:

    Like a couple of other people have said, I really enjoyed this post! I thought it was very in depth and I loved all of the specific examples you included (I almost forgot about the magic mirror with the three different princesses). I definitely agree with what others said about the recent trend in children’s animated films of including jokes intended for the adult viewer. However I think that these movies are still geared towards children, falling into the “texts intended for one audience but gesturing towards another” category we discussed in class. By interweaving these jokes and one-liners that only adults will appreciate, the experience of watching a movie (whether at the movie theaters or at home) becomes much more enjoyable for the entire family. The children are entertained by the basic storyline and characters while the adults/parents are simultaneously engaged in something they also find funny and entertaining to watch.

  7. Hey! I loved your post. I’m a nanny and when I watch movies with the kids I always find little gestures to adult viewers. For example, we were watching a Bugs Bunny movie in which Bugs gets in the shower and reenacts the murder scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It had the right camera shots and everything. I think the reason for so many of these little pop culture references is that the writers are trying to weave connections in the stories much the way we would if we were writing a short story and alluded to Hemingway. We often forget that screen writers are story writers too!

  8. arianaequinn says:

    I, like everyone else, really enjoyed your post on Shrek. I also like that you included a lot of the clips of the things you spoke about because its nice to get a refresher and see them all over again. It’s interesting to see just how many adult innuendos are actually included in the movies. I like to think that they do this to encourage parents to watch these movies with their kids. I get just as much enjoyment out of Shrek now as I used to when I was younger and remember my dad laughing at little things here and there. I can’t remember if we laughed at the same things but I think its great that an adult could get some or if not the same amount of enjoyment from a children’s movie. As mentioned, this is a recent trend and I think they very much qualify as crossover, or cross writing for both adults and children. I run a summer camp and Disney movies are a godsend on rainy days when the kids can’t play outside. I absolutely love these days because we get to revisit the classics as well as watch the newer releases and not only are the children amused and content but my staff and I are as well.

  9. chelseacmarcus says:

    If there is one thing I’ve learned from having a brother who’s 5, it’s that you think you like kids movies until you’re forced to watch them six times in row. That’s twelve hours. That’s all day. I can personally understand and even appreciate the fact that there’s adult humor in children’s movies. It keeps it fun and entertaining for us as adults (yikes!) as well as kids who may or may not have to sit and watch them every time you come home for a visit (can you sense the bitterness yet?). Adult humor is even prevalent in a lot of other Pixar movies. I remember one time I was watching “Cars” with my brother, and one of the characters goes “Oh, for the love of Chrysler…” and I laughed, and my brother had no clue what was going on. Letting adults in on the joke just lets them relate to the movie that much more so when kids make them watch it fifteen times, it’s still good.

  10. scarozza says:

    Shrek is certainly one of my favorite movies. I remember when the first movie came out on DVD, my dad purchased it for us to watch without me even asking for it. He enjoys it just as much as I do. I think these crossover texts are truly fantastic because various audiences can get enjoyment out of it. I don’t think these texts/movies are harmful to children in any way because it goes right over their heads. It’s really incredible when so many audiences can connect to a text or movie.

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