A Place for Fairy Tales

Shrek the Third topped box offices this weekend, not unexpectedly. No, I didn't get to see it (though I want to.) I was busy with a cousin-in-law's graduation party and the first birthday of a certain nephew.
An article in TIME looked at the series of Shrek movies in a different light than one most movie-goers did, asking Is Shrek Bad for Kids?

Why would anyone think that one of the most entertaining children's movies in the last few years could be bad? For good reason. And, I believe CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien would agree with the assessment. The article looks at the value of the 'Fairy Tale' (Tolkien discusses many of the same themes in in his essay On Fairy Stories and Lewis in Myth Becomes Fact) All sources argue that there is a place for the traditional fairy tale. The TIME article cites the growing trend of cynical fairy-tale parodies that entertain children and adults. And, I'll be the first to admit, they're entertaining. My first exposure to these fractured fairy tales was in elementary school, via the hilarious-at-the-time book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. The book was irreverent and silly, and made the room full of second graders laugh out loud. But it didn't end there- even much loved movies such as Ever After (The only chick-flick I'll sit through) and The Princess Bride poke fun at the genre and twist roles and endings to reflect the cynicism of the day. What's so wrong with this? As TIME points out,
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 "Charming" is redefined rather than repealed--Justin Timberlake voices Third's cute-boy hero Arthur--but at least that's some progress.
Yes, there are modern 'morals to the story' that these new movies do teach that aren't all bad, but there's something missing. How is the 'fairy tale' of Shrek different than the 'fairy tale' of, say, Lord of the Rings or Narnia or Peter Pan?
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. (As did Shrek, by the way. In the William Steig book, the ogre is way more brutal, scary and ... ogreish.) But the puncturing of the Disney style is in danger of becoming a cliché itself. The pattern--set up, then puncture, set up, then puncture--is so relentless that it inoculates the audience against being spellbound, training them to wait for the other shoe to drop whenever they see a moment of sentiment or magic. Every detail argues against seeing fairyland as something special, like the constant disposable-culture gags in Shrek, in which characters shop in chain stores like Versarchery and Ye Olde Foot Locker.
They inoculate the audience against being spellbound. Hilarious, fun, silly- Yes, but there is no wonder. The magic is lost. Tolkien and Lewis would agree.

The great narrative that should evoke wonder, they would argue, is the Greatest Story, the story of God.

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