Between the 130 million Shrek DVDs sold and the unstoppable Broadway phenomenon of Wicked - not to mention the Shrek knock-offs, the revisionist fairy-tale novels, and general public domain of many of these characters - fairy tales haven't been this big since the heyday of Walt Disney animation.
Junior princesses, listen up.
Little princes, gather 'round.
What have we done?
Once upon a time, you could begin a fairy tale with a pleasant cliche like "Once upon a time," and no one would roll their eyes.
But we've ruined fairy tales.
Didn't seem possible.
For generations, for centuries, the classics have been the classics, and the storytelling standards were so ingrained there was no toppling them, and the moral traditions so second-nature you would earn a scowl for questioning them. Sleeping Beauty waited for her Prince Charming, and evil deeds meant ugly mugs, and even if Hans Christian Andersen climbed from his European grave like one of his creations to denounce his handiwork, and to curse anyone who dared read it, he'd be walking uphill in clogs.
But no, we've done it.
Show me a young girl who still believes Sleeping Beauty should skulk around, wallowing in acute narcolepsy, unable to help herself, waiting for a dashing prince to sweep her away, and I'll show you an alien child. Likewise, is there a kid who hasn't, sometime between Shrek and Shrek 2, decided chartreuse ogres, if you would only invite them to coffee once in a full moon, are just misunderstood? Do kids know the original Cinderella - or just the politically sensitive grrrl power take?
We've parodied, re-imagined, re-visioned, re-written, spoofed, and mocked the fairy tale so relentlessly in recent years that the fairy tale spoof has become the fairy tale. In the process, we've revitalized the fairy tale. Between the 130 million Shrek DVDs sold and the unstoppable Broadway phenomenon of Wicked - not to mention the Shrek knock-offs, the revisionist fairy-tale novels, and general public domain of many of these characters - fairy tales haven't been this big since the heyday of Walt Disney animation.
But our illusions are blown, and our wonder is gone.
In its place, skepticism.
Or rather, pre-packaged irony.
Shrek the Third, which begins regular screenings tonight, arrives into a fairy-tale world of its own making, giving us a fairy-tale Main Street populated with the usual favorites, in which there's nothing left to make fun of, and no well-worn lessons left to knock down. Parody comes from a place of weakness. You need something to thumb your nose at. But raucously rude stabs at beloved cliches - we expect it so reflexively now it's hard to act surprised and harder to laugh. In other words, meet the new ogre, same as the old ogre. The Shrek pictures destroyed Never Never Land to save it. But it's hard going home again.
Granted, maybe fairy tales needed a little destroying. Every moral was sound, every handsome prince meant well, every princess awaited the hand of a strong man. Honorable souls were photogenic people, and nasty people had boils and green skin. They just looked different. So, follow the rules and you'll find happiness. The first Shrek lobbed a well-placed stink bomb into this: Without losing what's enchanting about fairy tales, it reminded us that being a frog prince is OK, too. The by-products were fresh fairy tale creations, namely Shrek himself, he of the trumpeted ears and meaty Tony Soprano physique.
Of course, Shrek himself was a creation of author William Steig. But the Shrek of movies - still enthusiastically voiced by Mike Myers, still with that ingeniously random Scottish brogue - probably remains the best fairy-tale example yet that being yourself is being true to who you really are. If flatulent and green is who you are, well, there you go. But like the previous sequel, Shrek the Third approaches its hit franchise the way many sequels do - by overcompensating for the lack of novelty, piling on subplots and new characters, giving short shift to old favorites.
Shrek, when the film begins, is to be crowned king of Far Far Away, which I think is a sort of upscale suburb of Never Never Land. But ruling is not his thing, so he sails away with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) in search of Arthur (Justin Timberlake), cousin to Shrek's wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz, lifeless). They plan to talk the kid into taking the job - and though the point of the Shrek films is upending conventions, Fiona is never considered for the crown. Nevermind. Back in the magic kingdom, Prince Charming leads a horde of classic villains (Captain Hook, the Headless Horseman, etc.) in a palace coup, with only a horde of classic princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, etc.) to halt them. That's a whole slew of plot.
What anyone who ever appreciated a second of the Shrek movies understands, the plot is hardly the point. The doodling is, and there's a few clever bits here: The Gingerbread Man's life flashing before his eyes, the very prolonged death of Fiona's dad. But Shrek the Third wants it both ways: It lacks the sincerity to invest in the story and the genuine fire that leads to a decent send-up. The pairing of celebrity voices and characters is as sharp as ever. But what I never liked about the Shrek films is those tip-toeing good manners disguised as snooty rebellion.
And now that Shrek the Third has decided to tell a story as opposed to riffing and thumbing its nose, we discover we have no emotional investment in these characters. Which is fine. We shouldn't. Bugs Bunny never requested emotional investment, either. But he stayed true. Wise advice. Then again, when rebellion is the rule, what's left to rebel against?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org