Movies

"Every Cartoon Studio In Hollywood Has Done It This Way"

|

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.

NEXT: This (Wet)Land is My Land

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Fairy Tales have been sanitized for centuries. “Bluebeard” is almost never told to children. In older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the wolf ATE grandma – who was sometimes rescued by slitting open the wolf’s belly after the woodsman chopped his head off.

    How many young children are now told the tales of fey kidnapping babies from the cradles and leaving changelings in their place?

  2. In older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the wolf ATE grandma – who was sometimes rescued by slitting open the wolf’s belly after the woodsman chopped his head off.

    That’s the version I grew up with, actually. And I’m not that old.

  3. Don’t forget the Fractured Fairy Tales of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show! And then there’s content clearly intended for us adults like Sondheim’s Into the Woods. To claim that this is somehow new is retarded. If anything the kids may wish to actually get the jokes and will become interested in the original stories themselves. Or maybe the jokes he’s criticizing in Shrek are actually for the adults, and the ones we don’t notice are for the kids, appealing to a broader audience.

    Pinky and the Brain used this technique as well. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in a major motion picture.

  4. In re ‘nothing new under the sun’–allow me to recommend the Fractured Fairy Tales from Rocky and Bullwinkle, and also James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time. When I was a kid, they made so much more sense than the pretty sanitized stories in the picture books.

  5. Can’t we criticize Shrek simply because it’s unfunny, dated, Hollywood hackery at its very worst? For the children, I mean.

  6. You missed the point, Jesse. Time Magazine has a new niche–the boring old fart market. And they’re going to work it, 9 to 5, five days a week.

  7. And this is why it’s so important to have youngsters read the works of Charles Dickens as early as they are able to. The source material may be more than a bit tedious, but you really can’t appreciate modern humor until you’ve been subjected to Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and above all, A Tale of Two Cities. Otherwise, I can see no reason to actually read Dickens, and then what would all the high school literature teachers do?

  8. Don’t forget the Fractured Fairy Tales of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show!

    I left that out because Poniewozik mentioned it. He didn’t cite anything earlier than it, though, giving the impression that it was then that the trend started to simmer.

  9. Bruno Bettelheim, who is now remember mostly for the things that he was wrong about, wrote an insightful book on fairytales, ” The Uses of Enchantment.” His point was that fairytales are best used in a dialogue between the teller and the child. You use the the story of Little Red Riding Hood to impress the need to be wary of strangers for example, or Hansel and Gretel to teach about blended families. You use the framework of the stories to convey values. When your little listener is too frightened you sanitize the story a bit, when they are inattentive you spice it up.
    Maybe there is a role for the Brothers Grimm, Baba Yaga, or Scheherazade used in a direct face to face with a child instead of letting Disney, Dreamworks, or PBS even deliver precanned, one size-fits-all stories.

  10. I came on the thread to mention Fractured Fairy Tales, but it’s been mentioned so I just have no reason to BE here :

  11. Jesse, I agree. And I had the same experience regarding Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol…and it *did* eventually lead me to read the original (as well as more Dickens). However, I’ve seen Shrek–but I’ve never read the book. And I know the movie has been criticized for apparently straying far from the book…

  12. Thomas Stevens wrote:

    “I came on the thread to mention Fractured Fairy Tales, but it’s been mentioned so I just have no reason to BE here”

    One cannot mention Fractured Fairy Tales enough. Or Rocky & Bullwinkle, for that matter.

  13. Just curious, did old-time fairy tales have subplots and jokes for the parents like Shrek? You can’t tell me that Lord Farquaad’s name is anything other than a slightly-off hominem of fuckwad.

  14. Lamar,

    Most traditional fairy tales are pretty dark when you think about them. In some ways, kids today can appreciate the cynical takes on them so well because they are so pampered and have life so easy. I suppose that a story like Cinderella had a bit more meaning to a kid in the 19th century whose mother really did die and really did have an evil step mother and really was put to work at an early age, than it would to a typical brat today.

  15. In older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the wolf ATE grandma – who was sometimes rescued by slitting open the wolf’s belly after the woodsman chopped his head off.

    “That’s the version I grew up with, actually. And I’m not that old.”

    I heard that version as a kid too — but it wasn’t the first version that I heard. I heard a less violent version first.

    BTW, true story: When my brother and I were kids, my dad told us the story of “Tempest Storm and the Three Bears.” (Tempest Storm was a stripper. But he didn’t change the story much, just the name.) I’d heard the real version already, but my mom got mad at my dad because she was afraid my brother would think that was the real version, and that he might try to “correct” the teacher later when he heard the more traditional version in kindergarten.

  16. The chief difference between those movies and Shrek is that Shrek’s gags were actually funny.

    I found both Aladdin and (especially) Hercules, funny. Shrek? Meh, good for a giggle. The difference between Robin Williams and James Woods vs Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy

  17. As a kid, I didn’t have access to the “darker” Grimm’s versions of fairy tales. I had friggin’ Little Golden Books. Now THOSE were sanitizied.

    My school library DID have a well-worn copy of Der Struwwelpeter, a popular rainy-day lunchtime item for its creepy drawings.

  18. I was about eight or nine when I first read the real versions of old fairy tales; my grandmother had a set of storybooks so old they actually contained “Little Black Sambo.” I remember how shocked I was by Snow White’s original ending: the evil stepmother danced at Snow’s wedding, by having red-hot iron shoes put on her bare feet until she danced herself to death.

    I liked the dark, creepy versions better than the sanitized ones I had before. I’d guess a lot of kids do. The world is still a rather scary and mysterious place in your single-digit years, when you’ve spent more than half your life believing there really was a carnivorous monster under your bed waiting for the chance to eat you. That dark matter is right up a kid’s alley. Look at Roald Dahl’s stuff!

  19. Jennifer,

    Kids haven’t changed. It is the adults that have changed more than anything. I don’t think you are alone in your desire for creepy stuff. Why the adults felt the need to sanitize the tales is beyond me. I am told the Ronald Dahl books are really well written and entertaining. It is too bad Dahl himself is such a jerk who thinks that CS Lewis is bad for kids.

  20. I’d get upset about this Shrek business, but I am still mad about Aesop’s moralizing of all the good old tales. And Plato? What he did to the Myth of Er really angries up my blood.

    [children] get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals

    The horror! Kind of like getting exposed to classical music in, say, a Warner Bros. cartoon instead of the “proper” way, from an orchestra. This complaint makes little sense, because the parody/irony/politics are there for the adults (as he admits), and to the little ones it is just a story.

  21. So, I just read somewhere that the ‘Hostel’ movies can be seen as modern day versions of Hansel & Gretel, inasmuch as the protagonists are led by the desire to overindulge their carnal desires to a place where their intentions are turned back on them by characters with more extreme versions of the same desires.

    So, be sure to show ‘Hostel’ to your kids!

  22. There was a World War 2 version of the Three Little Pigs, where the wolf was Hitler and the pigs were fighting him with heavy artillery, bombs, etc.

    I guess that’s one of those blacklisted cartoons now.

  23. shrek sucks balls and should never be defended.

  24. Roald Dahl’s books creeped me out as a kid, and I thank Tim Burton for bringing a more accurate spirit to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (up until the end… puke!) I also liked this book we had that was Tales from Uncle Remus (or something like that) about sick mind tricks animals would play on each other. Best fables ever.

  25. Aside from the CG, Shrek did nothing that wasn’t already run into the ground by Looney Tunes and God only knows how many buddy comedies. I’ll never know why people consider it somehow new or funny.

  26. My favorite Original Grimm ending; The step-sisters are bride’s maids. They have doves perched on their outside shoulders. As they walk up the aisle, the doves peck out one of their eyes. When they walk back down the aisle they turn around, the doves change shoulders and peck out the other eye!

  27. “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.”

    Bingo. As in The Little Mermaid, who in the original did not get the prince, and Beauty and the Beast, which had nothing to do with an evil hunter.

    And I know the movie (Shrek) has been criticized for apparently straying far from the book…

    Way far. But I actually liked the movie better.

    Most traditional fairy tales are pretty dark when you think about them.

    True. And they’re still being told.

    When Disney’s Beauty and the Beast came out it was nominated for a 1992 Best Picture Oscar. (And won two Oscars for music.) Anyone remember which picture won the Oscar that year?

    The Silence of the Lambs. Which was also a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fable.

    Not all the fairy tales are animated.

  28. I would assume that this guy would also oppose Peabody and Sherman on the grounds that it’s using history as a vehicle for lame jokes?

  29. The Silence of the Lambs. Which was also a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fable.

    If you’re talking about the Hannibal/Clarice plotline, I’d agree. The search for the senator’s daughter is closer to the Rapunzel story.

  30. I’ve got to give some support to J-Pon here, at least with respect to Shrek. If Jeffrey Katzenberg wants to take his revenge on the Disney Company let him do it on his own time. Who’s got time for all those in jokes?

    Did Hillary end up choosing the Smash Mouth cover of “I’m a Believer” as her campaign theme? That’s a reason to hate Shrek right

  31. I’ve got to agree with Warren; Hercules was funny as hell – one of Disney’s most entertaining movies ever (and my two under age 9 children would agree with that).

    And, although it was “pop culture saturated” and full of “metafictions”, it in no way diminished their appreciation of D’aulaire’s more traditional renditions of Greek mythology which I introduced the kids to subsequent to their seeing Hercules ; in fact, I believe it enhanced their appreciation of D’aulaire by predisposing them to find the myths enjoyable and entertaining.

    And, yes I know that Greek myths are not the same as fairy tales, but I figure the same line of reasoning applies to fairy tales.

  32. If you’re looking for irreverent looks at fairy tales, I recommend the comic book series Fables, wherein: The denizens of fairy tale land are driven into the “real world” by some unseen, Sauron-esque enemy and come to dwell in their own section of New York City. Old King Cole in the Mayor of “Fabletown” and Snow White is his deputy. Prince Charming is a cowardly, philander, on his forth wife. The Big Bad Wolf, who can now transform into human form, is the town sheriff. Little Boy Blue is a jazz-playing courier with a dark secret.

    It’s actually a pretty good series. Pick it up.

  33. Yikes, it’s late. Let me try that again:

    If you’re looking for irreverent looks at fairy tales, I recommend the comic book series Fables, wherein: The denizens of fairy tale land are driven into the “real world” by some unseen, Sauron-esque enemy and come to dwell in their own section of New York City. Old King Cole is the Mayor of “Fabletown” and Snow White is his deputy. Prince Charming is a cowardly, philander, on his fourth wife. The Big Bad Wolf, who can now transform into human form, is the town sheriff. Little Boy Blue is a jazz-playing courier with a dark secret. Etc.

    It’s actually a pretty good series with plenty of intrigue, politics, violence, romance, and occasionally nudity. Pick it up.

  34. EDIT: …ocassional nudity…

    GAH! I’m going to bed.

  35. Never mind all that; why is the cornerstone in the Three Little Bops (YouTube link above) dated May 1, 1776? I once phoned Friz Freleng to ask about that, and he disavowed all knowledge of the Illuminati.

    Meanwhile, Silence of the Lambs was also a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

  36. And the Ed Gein story is the story of America.

    Or something. Hrmmm…

  37. I mean, we’re all really just skin-suit wearing cannibals under the surface. Right?

    Or, maybe not…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.