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Dead Tree Alert: Snarkily Ever After

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In this week’s print Time, I sneak-peek Shrek the Third and look at how that movie franchise–with plenty of help in the book, TV and theater businesses–has made fairy-tale parodies bigger than the original fairy tales themselves:

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.

Much of what I write about here goes beyond fairy tales to the general snarkification of kids’ entertainment: a movie like Shark Tale, for instance, is crammed with enough easy pop-culture references and topical jokes that it has the shelf life of a raw shark steak on a hot sidewalk. (Part of what I love about Pixar’s movies, on the other hand, is that they actually seem intended to be timeless.)

It’s hard to write about the subject without sounding like a cranky old man, but the irony is, this kind of movie gets made in part to please cranky old parents. So I’m curious about the experience of parents out there: do your kids get exposed to the original fairy tale first, or the postmodern meta-parody Happy Meal version?