Ogres as romantic heroes and princess brides. Cinderella as a neurotic clean freak. Snow White as a bossy know-it-all. Puss in Boots hacking up hairballs. Pinocchio with a leaf still growing off his wooden lie-detector nose.
These are not animation godfather Walt Disney’s fairy tales.
The “Shrek” films, whose latest installment hits theaters Friday, have made blockbuster business out of subverting classic children’s stories, presenting lovably goofy alter egos out of shiny knights and fair damsels and maybe bringing them a little closer to our own not-so-happily-ever-after reality.
“My guess is that in the essence of what these characters originally were, they probably were more complex,” said “Shrek the Third” producer Aron Warner. “In the last however many years, one side of them has been shown, and it’s the more shiny, happy, everything’s perfect side.
“I think that frustrates people whose lives don’t in any way, shape or form reflect that. There’s a kind of joy and willingness to see the other side, see them undone. In a way, see them more like ourselves. If you really knew Snow White, you’d know there’s more to her than just the happy-go-lucky singing girl in the forest.”
“I hope so, because that girl would be crazy,” added director Chris Miller. “That’s my notion of a lunatic.”
Since 2001’s “Shrek” and its 2004 sequel “Shrek 2,” there have been animated imitators, cartoon comedies such as “Chicken Little,” “Hoodwinked” and “Happily N’Ever After” that have added their own twists to the fractured fairy-tale world.
None have done it with such ambition as the land of “Shrek,” where a donkey can marry a dragon, a fairy godmother can hatch evil plots and a frog king and a human queen can have an ogre for a daughter.
‘You can’t harm the original’“Shrek the Third” continues the saga of cantankerous ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), his equally ogre-ish bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their pals, the maniacally chatty Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the suave, swellheaded Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).
Other returning characters include comic variations of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio, the Gingerbread Man and the villainous Prince Charming (Rupert Everett).
The new film also brings in such fabled figures as King Arthur (Justin Timberlake), magician Merlin, Captain Hook and a fairy-tale A-list of princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel.
“The good thing is, you can’t harm the original image. You’re never going to really take away from Sleeping Beauty or Snow White,” said Julie Andrews, whose early roles included a TV musical production of “Cinderella” in the late 1950s and who provides the voice of Fiona’s mom, Queen Lillian.
Those vintage princesses get a huge makeover as Fiona becomes mentor, teaching her fairer cousins not to wait around for their princes to come but to mix it up like action heroes when Prince Charming seizes control of the kingdom.
Diaz said the “Shrek” films retain the best qualities of fairy-tale figures while infusing them with contemporary wit, style and relevance.
“We do love those girls. We want to bring them with us. But now they have a whole new life. They can exist in our current culture, our pop culture again,” Diaz said. “Where before, they were forgotten. It’s a celebration of them. It’s a rebirth.”
“It’s almost like a ‘fairy-tales where are they now’ special,” said Cheri Oteri, who provides the voice of Sleeping Beauty. “Like Jack Be Nimble, whatever happened to him?”
‘What is a hero, what is a villain?’When “Shrek” was first pitched to Myers, he was charmed by the notion of telling a traditional fairy tale as a broad, modern comedy that inverts audience expectations.
The irritable loner Shrek, who simply wants to be left on his own in his swamp, turns out to be the bold romantic hero. The faithful sidekick is a motormouthed donkey.
And the damsel held captive in a tower is transformed from enchanting human to portly ogre.
“I was so inspired by their pitch about the idea of an ogre girl who’s had a pretty-girl spell thrown on her,” Myers said. “That inversion. I just went boom! Whoa, that is for me. ...
“The point of the movie is to take this strange and sinister Euro-centric, judgmental and yet meaningful idiom, art form, and deconstruct it, and in its deconstruction, there is meaning,” Myers said. “So traditional heroes are villains, traditional villains are heroes. What is a hero, what is a villain? You can be the author of your own life. You don’t have to listen to what people say about you. ... People might say bad things about you, but I won’t say bad things about myself.”
Banderas signed on with the “Shrek” gang as the voice of Puss in Boots, the self-assured swashbuckler in the body of a cute little kitty who was introduced in the second film.
Though a fan of the first “Shrek,” Banderas said he had trouble accepting some of the deviations from fairy-tale conventions.
“Watching the movie, I’m thinking how wonderful Fiona was, how beautiful she was. She looked like a beautiful girl you would find on the street and make you fall in love with her,” Banderas said. “Then I had a certain resistance as a spectator for her to be an ogre. Even if she’s a nice ogre. I was thinking in the back of my brain, they’re going to end up being humans at the end of the movie. That’s what I had to break in myself. ...
“I said, ‘No, I have to accept this end. This is the right ending for a movie like this.’ I think many people went through this process when they were observing this movie. We are used to rejecting ugliness without reason.”
Would Walt Disney, who set the 20th century standard for fairy tales with his classic animated films, reject the new look and attitude of the “Shrek” realm? What would he think about seeing his stable of beloved princesses and other characters turned on their heads?
“I don’t think he’d mind at all. He was so far ahead of the pack, anyway,” said Andrews, who won an Academy Award for Disney’s 1964 musical fantasy “Mary Poppins.” “I think he’d be the first to recognize that it’s OK. We also should be very grateful, because if he hadn’t helped create all that, we wouldn’t have anything to tilt at.”