James Poniewozik, who is usually a lot more sensible than this, becomes the latest cultural critic to fret about the Shrek effect:
This is the new world of fairy tales: parodied, ironized, meta-fictionalized, politically adjusted and pop-culture saturated. (Yes, the original stories are still out there, but they don't have the same marketing force behind them: the Happy Meals, action figures, books, games and other ancillary-revenue projects.) All of which appeals to the grownups who chaperone the movie trips and endure the repeated DVD viewings. Old-school fairy tales, after all, are boring to us, not the kids….
But the puncturing of the Disney style is in danger of becoming a cliché itself….There's something a little sad about kids growing up in a culture where their fairy tales come pre-satirized, the skepticism, critique and revision having been done for them by the mama birds of Hollywood.
To his credit, Poniewozik notes that the Shrek series builds on "a long-simmering cultural trend." He just doesn't seem to recognize how long that trend has been simmering. When I was a kid, famous fairy tales came unravelled almost every day on Sesame Street, usually with Kermit the Frog on the scene. When my parents were kids, Friz Freleng and Tex Avery happily transformed the Three Little Pigs into a jazz trio and Little Red Riding Hood into a sexy nightclub singer. And so on, back through the generations: Before TV or movies existed, troupes mixed fractured fairy tales with topical humor in Harlequinade plays. This is part of the process by which such stories evolve and thrive. (These post-Shrek complaints about postmodern kid-lit aren't new either. When I was a 22-year-old Borders clerk, I heard the same arguments about books like The Stinky Cheese Man.)
Even Disney, Shrek's chief target, has tried its hands at this. As Poniewozik rightly notes, "What these stories are reacting against is not so much fairy tales in general as the specific, saccharine Disney kind, which sanitized the far-darker originals." But Disney spent the '90s trying to create hip, pop-savvy, and at least mildly ironized versions of classic stories, filling flicks like Aladdin and Hercules with Poochie-style "contemporary" gags. The chief difference between those movies and Shrek is that Shrek's gags were actually funny. (I'm just referring to the first film here—I haven't seen the sequels.)
Poniewozik worries that kids will "get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals." And with some tales they will. (I myself believed for years that A Christmas Carol was a story about Mister Magoo.) But there's no sign that the parodies have actually supplanted the original fairy tales, nor that the nation's grandparents and schoolteachers will stop bombarding our children with the more familiar versions of the stories. Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs might not have their own happy meals and action figures, but they've already managed to survive for centuries without such tools at their disposal. They'll survive the Shrek series as well.