Once upon a time, in a land near near by, there were fairy tales. Brave princes slew dragons and saved fair damsels. Princesses and scullery maids waited for brave knights and true love. The good were pretty, the evil ugly, the morals absolute. And lo, it was good. If you liked that sort of thing.
Then a hideous green monster appeared and threw the realm into chaos. Handsome princes were mocked, damsels saved themselves, and ogres and dragons were shown to be decent folks once you got to know them.
And lo, it was even better--particularly for the movie industry. The first two Shrek movies, which upended every fairy-tale cliché they could get their meaty chartreuse paws on, grossed more than $700 million in the U.S. alone; there's little reason to believe that Shrek the Third won't fill its hungry Scottish maw with hundreds of millions more after it is released May 18.
Shrek consciously rebelled against the sentimental Disney hegemony of fairy-tale movies. But today the outlaw is king: parodying fairy tales has become the default mode of telling them. 2005's Hoodwinked! reimagined Little Red Riding Hood as a crime Rashomon, while this year's Happily N'Ever After sent up Cinderella. Broadway smash Wicked posits that the Wicked Witch of the West was misunderstood. This fall Disney (et tu, Mickey?) releases Enchanted, in which a princess (Amy Adams) is magically banished by an evil queen to modern New York City, where she must fend for herself, parodying her princess foremothers as she goes. (Snow White's Whistle While You Work scene is re-enacted with vermin and roaches.)
All this has been a welcome change from generations of hokey fairy tales with stultifying lessons: Be nice and wait for your prince; be obedient and don't stray off the path; bad people are just plain evil and ugly and deserve no mercy. But palace revolutions can have their own excesses. Are the rules of fairy-tale snark becoming as rigid as the ones they overthrew? Are we losing a sense of wonder along with all the illusions?
Shrek didn't remake fairy tales single-handed; it captured, and monetized, a long-simmering cultural trend. TV's Fractured Fairy Tales parodied Grimm classics, as have movies like The Princess Bride and Ever After and the books on which Shrek and Wicked were based. And highbrow postmodern and feminist writers, such as Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter, Robert Coover and Margaret Atwood, used the raw material of fairy stories to subvert traditions of storytelling that were as ingrained in us as breathing or to critique social messages that their readers had been fed along with their strained peas.
But those parodies had a dominant fairy-tale tradition to rebel against. The strange side effect of today's meta-stories is that kids get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals. My two sons (ages 2 and 5) love The Three Pigs, a storybook by David Wiesner in which the pigs escape the big bad wolf by physically fleeing their story (they fold a page into a paper airplane to fly off in). It's a gorgeous, fanciful book. It's also a kind of recursive meta-fiction that I didn't encounter before reading John Barth in college. Someday the kids will read the original tale and wonder why the stupid straw-house pig doesn't just hop onto the next bookshelf. Likewise, Shrek reimagines Puss in Boots as a Latin tomcat--but what kid today even reads Puss in Boots in the original?
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. The Shrek movies have a nigh-scientific formula for the ratio of fart jokes to ask-your-mother jokes; Shrek the Third includes a visit to a fairy-tale high school where there's a Just Say Nay rally and a stoner-sounding kid stumbles out of a coach trailed by a cloud of "frankincense and myrrh" smoke. More broadly, each movie gives Shrek and Fiona an adult challenge: in the first, to find love and see beyond appearances; in Shrek 2, to meet the in-laws; in Shrek the Third, to take on adult responsibility and parenthood (Shrek has to find a new heir to the throne of Far Far Away, or he will have to succeed the king).
Then there are the messages aimed at kids. What parent today wants to raise an entitled prince or a helpless damsel? Seeing Snow White turn from cream puff into kick-ass fury in Shrek the Third--launching an army of bluebirds and bunnies at the bad guys to the tune of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song--is more than a brilliant sight gag. It's a relief to parents of girls, with Disney's princess legacy in their rearview mirrors and Bratz dolls and Britney up ahead. It goes hand in hand with a vast genre of empowered-princess books (Princess Smartypants, The Princess Knight) for parents who'd rather their daughters dream of soccer balls than royal balls. As for the boys? Jocks have a rough time of it (a handsome prince is the villain of Shrek the Third and the buffoon in N'Ever After), supplanted by gangly emo types--fairyland Adam Brodys. "Charming" is redefined rather than repealed--Justin Timberlake voices Third's cute-boy hero Arthur--but at least that's some progress.
Tweaking fairy tales also allows moviemakers to tell stories about themselves without boring us. The Shrek movies are full of inside jokes (the kingdom of Far Far Away is essentially Beverly Hills; the first villain was widely seen as a stand-in for then Disney chief Michael Eisner). Fairy-tale parodies are safe rebellions, spoofing formulas and feel-good endings while still providing the ride into the sunset that pays the bills. In Happily N'Ever After, a wizard runs a "Department of Fairy-tale-land Security," seeing to it that each story--Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.--hews to the book. His bored apprentice Mambo articulates the strategy of his movie and its peers: "I just wish we could mix it up a little. Make it a little edgier! Then let 'em have their happy ending."