Remembering Shrek 2: How Kelly Asbury and team played around with the idea of a subversive Disney fairy tale
With the 2004 animated film, director Kelly Asbury overturned Disney fairy tale tropes like Prince Charming, Fairy Godmother, and Happily Ever After.
In the climactic sequence of Shrek 2 (2004), Prince Charming is trying to seduce Princess Fiona as Fairy Godmother sings Bonnie Tylor's popular track 'Holding Out For A Hero.' "Where have all the good men gone?," she sings in the background. When Charming attempts to kiss, and Fairy Godmother finishes the song with "I need a hero," Fiona's husband Shrek barges in to rescue the princess.
This chain of events entails all the subversions the makers of Shrek 2 incorporated into the narrative of the animated film. One of its directors, Kelly Asbury, passed away on Monday at the age of 60 after a battle with cancer. He was a Disney veteran, who worked as a story artist and visual development artist in animated fairy tale films like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) among others. But when he got down to Shrek, the idea was to flirt with the expectations of Disney fairy tale fans and turn the tropes from those stories on their heads.
Below, we discuss the three primary tropes Asbury overturned in Shrek 2, that were perpetuated by Disney fairy tales.
Shrek 2 starts where the first film ended: Princess Fiona from the kingdom of Far Far Away, locked into a tower guarded by a dragon on the order of her parents, is rescued by an ogre Shrek. As per an agreement, Prince Charming (yes, that is his name) was supposed to rescue and marry Fiona in order to become the heir to the throne of Far Far Away.
However, as Shrek 2 opens, Charming, heroically narrates, "I endure the blistering winds and scorching deserts" and "climb the highest room of the tallest tower" only to find the Big Bad Wolf in granny clothes (from The Little Red Riding Hood) in the bed. He informs Charming that Fiona is already married to Shrek.
While the first part already set the tone of subverting the Disney template by having an ogre rescue and marry a princess (who is cursed to be an ogress till she is kissed by Prince Charming), the second part brought in several more motifs from the fairy tales who went to extents beyond their goodwill to force the narrative adhere to the storybooks.
Charming in Shrek 2 is a hair-swaying, manicure-admiring prince who spends first half of the film whining about being stripped off a chance at the throne. In the second half, he is tasked to lure Fiona into a kiss so that he can realise the effect of the 'love potion' and make her fall for him. But more than loving Fiona, he is busy basking in the glory of his newfound kingdom on the red carpet of their wedding ball. Even when he tries to bait her into a kiss, he mouths lines like, "That's Cherry (the lip shine he is wearing). Want a bite?" And we cringe along with Fiona. Not charming at all, Charming.
Shrek 2 paints the presumably reliable Prince Charming as a momma's boy. And who is his momma here? The Fairy Godmother.
Fairy Godmother promises to Fiona, "With a flick of my magic wand, your troubles will soon be gone." But little does Fiona know Fairy Godmother has a vested interest in her love life, and has already struck a deal with her father, King Harold, to get her married to her son Charming.
This politicisation of Far Far Away makes Fairy Godmother one of the most interesting characters in the franchise because of the grey shades attached to her character, which do not gel well with her traditional role at all. Here, she is mean, calculating, and manipulative. She is a false idol who guards her public image as ferociously as the selfish interests of her son.
But the protectiveness and facade take a toll on her as well, as she is often seen indulging in some good ol' emotional eating. "My diet has ruined," she tells Harold when their plan falls flat; or when Shrek steals the Happily Ever After potion from her factory, she cannot help but scream, "Someone get me something deep-fried and smothered in chocolate!" Clearly, for Fairy Godmother, happiness is just a
teardrop Churro away.
Happily Ever After
When Shrek seeks out Fairy Godmother's advice for mending his marriage with Fiona, she tells him that she does not have a solution for him since none of the fairy tales have ogres in there, so there is no 'Happily Ever After' to his story. "Stop living a fairy tale," she tells him later.
Even after he turns into a handsome hunk by drinking the 'Happily Ever After' portion, Fairy Godmother reminds him he is still an ogre at heart, and Fiona still a princess. "And no potion can change that. Ogres don't have a Happily Ever After.'"
But once Shrek realises the ulterior motive behind her actions, he seeks help from his gang (Donkey, Puss in Boots, Gingerbread Man, Pinochhio et al) to make Fiona look through the devious scheme. When he proposes they kiss before midnight ("Why is it always midnight!" he asks rhetorically) to make the effects of the potion permanent, she backs out. "I want to live Happily Ever After... with the ogre I married."
Now, had it been a reckless disruptor in the director's chair, they may have gone to the extent of NOT having a happy ending or a Happily Ever After. Asbury's filmography proves he was a believer in Disney, and thus ticked all the right boxes.
But he also made sure we remember him well. Once upon a time, there was a man who never let his love for all things Disney stop him from writing his own fairy tale.
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