What Sex and the City did for the love story, Shrek has done for the fairy tale: It's taken a classic genre and purged it of any trace of innocence, substituting raunch, cynicism, and a self-congratulatory knowingness instead, and then tying up the jaded narrative with a happily-ever-after bow.
Our culture robs children of their innocence as early as it can; and it is only in that innocence that the real meaning of fairy tales can be perceived. I believe this is one of the primary truths we learn from G.K. Chesterton. When we are older, we cannot but assume a critical distance from what we read. The child is still in the process of forming his self; what he reads (or is read to him) becomes a part of him in a way it never can again. For Chesterton, every truth worth knowing he learned in the nursery.
It is bad enough our children are exposed to things that destroy their innocence early on, and make the appreciation of fairy tales more difficult. Now, in the Shrek series, the fairy tale tradition itself is subverted. This constitutes a kind of inoculation against the power of fairy tales. Douthat is as depressed about this as I am:
I have a horrible feeling that the Shrek franchise offers millions of kids their first exposure - and worse, their last - to the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.
The result is the sort of impertinent, self-satisfied young adults whom I encounter among my children's peers. They are not exactly insolent; but they are already jaded at age 17 and unselfconscious in their conviction that the world offers nothing before which they should bow. The notion that there might be something out there that might be more grand, significant and awesome than themselves is something that can't occur to them; they've been inoculated against it as they might have been inoculated against small pox. That such youths are somewhat unpleasant is not the major point. It is that they have been robbed of the virtue of humility that is the prerequisite for eros, the deep and mysterious longing in the soul for it knows not what. To draw on Chesterton one more time, we can perceive the gigantic only to the extent that we are small. This is one of the primary lessons of fairy tales, a lesson our children can no longer learn... at least as long as Shrek and its ilk is available to them.