May 18, 2007

When you riff upon a star

Last weekend a friend who knows me well enough to know that I don't care much for the Shrek movies sent me a recent Time Magazine article by James Poniewozik, "How Shrek Changed Fairy Tales". A few days later, in response to another friend, who thinks she might be a "prude" because she objects to such things as S&M in PG rated movies, I wrote, "I'll go you one better [than being a prude]. As I think I've written before, I don't even like the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, snarky asides meant for adults in what are supposed to be children's movies; pretty much all that Shrek-type, Over the Hedge, and new Disney stuff. It infantilizes adults and gives kids adult material they don't need, and I'm noticing that less and less is getting over the heads of my 9.5 and 8 year olds..."; the whole licensed product, product placement business is another annoyance I don't put up with. So I laughed this morning when I saw that Roger Sutton at his blog Read Roger had written a post on Monday about the Time article, entitled Nudge nudge wink wink.

From the Time article [emphases mine],
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). ...

I feel like a traitor to my fellow parents for even saying this. These movies are made in part for me: a socially progressive, irony-friendly Gen Xer with rug rats. I thought Hoodwinked! and most of the Shrek series were hilarious, and God knows I don't want to go back to the days of suffering with my kids through a long, slow pour of Uncle Walt's wholesome syrup. But even if you ultimately reject their messages, old-school fairy tales are part of our cultural vocabulary. 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. Isn't irony supposed to derive from having something to rebel against? Isn't there a value in learning, for yourself, that life doesn't play out as simply as it does in fairy tales? Is there room for an original, nonparodic fairy story that's earnest without being cloying, that's enlightened without saying wonder is for suckers?

In fact, the strongest moments in Shrek the Third come when it steps back from the frantic pop-culture name dropping of Shrek 2 and you realize that its Grimm parodies have become fleshed-out characters in their own right. In August, Paramount releases Stardust, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel about a nerdy 19th century lad who ventures from England to a magical land to retrieve a fallen star. The live-action movie covers many of the same themes as the ubiquitous cartoon parodies--be yourself, don't trust appearances, women can be heroic too. But it creates its own fantastic settings (a seedy witches' bazaar, a sky pirate's dirigible ship). There's a kind of surprise and unembarrassed majesty that come from minting original characters and imagery rather than simply riffing on our cartoon patrimony. In the end, that's how you make magic.
All of which came to mind the other day when I added the "How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry" to my recent post, because in looking for a link I could provide with the How and Why books, I found this from an online interview with children's author Jon Scieszka (who said he "loved leafing through The Golden Book Encyclopedia and 'How and Why Wonder Books' and reading the back of cereal boxes and Mad magazine and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comic books") in Pif magazine,
[Pif]: Your new book is kind of a way to introduce readers to Aesop. What do Aesop's fables look like to the kid who's read Squids Will Be Squids first? For that matter, what do fairy tales look like after The Stinky Cheese Man? How is the ginger bread man handling all of this?

JS: Kids in general have a much more flexible intelligence than adults ever give them credit for. They may first read the Squid Fables and the Stinky Fairy Tales for pure entertainment, but when they come upon Aesop and the Grimm Brothers later, they get the connection between the old and the new. I've found that it's more the inflexible adult mind that thinks every kid has to know all of the "classic" fables and fairy tales before they can understand these new versions. But if adults were to think back on their own experience, they might remember that they first heard modern fairy tales and fables through cartoons like "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and the old Warner Bros. cartoons and Disney and advertising before they read the "classic" versions.
I tend to think the riffs make more sense with a foundation of the classics; that there's such a wealth and richness to the original fairy tales, available in infinite tellings and retellings; and that it probably wouldn't hurt kids to let them develop their own sense of irony. But then a) I'm old-fashioned and b) that's probably not news.

A brief, rather old-fashioned bibliography:

Shrek! by William Steig
Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline, a picture book retelling by Philip Pullman (yes, that Philip Pullman) and illustrated by Ian Beck
The SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages
Andrew Lang's "color" fairy books
The Jack Tales: Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians, collected and retold by Richard Chase, originally published in 1943

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