Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Twists on Genre Conventions in Children's Movies (Shrek and Happily Never After)

I've just come back from watching Happily Never After. I enjoyed the first 5 minutes of the show very much, and the rest was ok, though not fantastic.

Like Shrek, Happily Never After plays with the genre conventions of fairy tale movies made for kids -- most notably those put out by Disney over the years. Both of these films twist the conventions of the genre, moving the prince away from the position of the Hero. No longer is the prince the guy who saves the day, in these two stories.

In Shrek, the emphasis is on the ugly winning out over the handsome. In Happily Never After, the issue is class and socioeconomic status. But the stories are essentially the same. They twist the tale based on who wins at the end of the day.

I would argue, though, that these are merely twists of convention, and not by any means a break with convention. It is still the protagonist who is the Hero. The twist is that the protagonist is now ugly/poor instead of the handsome prince. But the story remains largely the same. The guy we know from the beginning that we are supposed to like rescues the girl and they begin their happily ever after. With Shrek 2 and the upcoming Shrek 3, perhaps we have some questioning of what "happily ever after" means, and Happily Never After questions it directly/overtly, with a subtle subtext being that we already know that, and assume that it is not all that different than what the old fairy tales let us believe, albeit with a different sort of hero. The hero is a twist, but it is not by any means a break from convention. In fact, these are quite conservative and conventional films, for all that they seem to flaunt the conventions and traditions. Even with the female characters playing their part in the fight scenes, there is still never quite a break even from the boy-rescues-girl plot.

What would be a real break from convention then? It's hard to say whether there is a workable way to do a real break and still make a cartoon that parents will bring their kids to see. What would we say about a film that had the protagonist not winning the girl? What if the two parted ways, without having their dreams fulfilled? How would we like that? And is it the sort of "message" we want our little ones to receive?

When it comes down to it, some of the surface messages have changed in Shrek and Happily Never After. Girls can fight alongside their men now. Heroes don't have to be rich and good-looking. (Though being one or the other seems to help -- Shrek isn't poor and Rick isn't bad-looking.) And playing games with the characters we've loved over the years has proven fun in both films.

But still, the underlying messages and assumptions are the same. Dreams do come true. We have to have a happy ending (and that has to mean boy and girl ending up marrying). The boy has to seek after the girl to rescue her, even if she does fight alongside him.

At the end of the day, for all the outward signs of breaking with convention, our fairy tales haven't changed all that much.

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