In anticipation of the release of the fourth "Shrek" movie, “Shrek: Forever And After,” the film's cartoon characters are appearing in a sultry photo shoot in the men's fashion magazine VMan.
In the odd spread, Donkey cozies up to a lingerie-clad model while a shirtless man reclines in the background. Meanwhile, two topless men fight over Princess Fiona, and the Gingerbread man perches in a model’s cleavage.
The Dreamworks characters, voiced by Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas and Eddie Murphy, are meant to appeal primarily to children. The racy photographs, on the other hand, are meant to be seen by adult eyes only, though they are easily accessible to people of all ages.
Now insiders at Dreamworks tell Fox411.com that they regret that the studio gave permission to VMan to use their characters in its fashion spread, shot by fashion photographer Ellen von Unworth.
Studio sources say that while Dreamworks respects VMan magazine's creative license, the product did not turn out the way they envisioned it when the magazine pitched the idea to them.
"In hindsight the studio would have declined to have the characters participate" given how the pages turned out, a rep for Paramount, the distributor of Dreamworks films, told Fox411.com. exclusively.
Reps for VMan and Ellen von Unwerth did not respond to requests for comment.
New York Post film critic Kyle Smith says the photos are not only bizarre, but they also show a desperation by studios to toe the line for publicity.
“I don't think Walt Disney would have allowed Snow White and Cinderella to appear in a magazine spread that made it look like they were about to participate in a menage a trois,” Smith told Fox411.com.
“I doubt the pictures are going to corrupt the youth of America, since they're in a fashion magazine that would probably not interest children. But someone should be fired for having such a dim understanding of the Shrek brand that they were willing to trade his carefully nurtured family-friendly image for some cheap publicity in a tired and vaguely tawdry fashion spread.”
But some adult fans of both fashion and Shrek say there is absolutely nothing offensive about running these photographs in a magazine targeted toward adults, especially now that cartoon fare in general has evolved into a genre for all age groups.
“I don’t understand why anybody would be remotely offended," Styleite.com fashion columnist Nadine Jolie said. "The photos are cute and clever, clearly meant for an adult audience, and certainly a good idea to drum up publicity for marketing purposes.
“In this era of 'South Park,' 'Adult Swim' and 'Archer,' surely we understand that not all cartoons are aimed toward children. Why would a child be reading VMan magazine, in any case?”
The "Shrek" films have always operated on two levels: one is the fairytale to be understood by children, and the second is a more sophisticated and darker humor meant to be enjoyed by adults.
“'Shrek' has always been the most adult-friendly animated film franchise out there, as appealing to parents as it is to kids," Moviefone Senior Editor Kevin Polowy told Fox 411.com. "The films are littered with double entendres and innuendos, so it's really not all that surprising to seem them push the envelope. They seem pretty harmless.”
But Dreamworks has taken heat for the adult humor in the films before. When the second “Shrek” film hit theaters in 2004, the socially conservative Traditional Values Coalition warned parents to be wary of the transgender and cross-dressing themes that appeared in the movie.
It remains to be seen whether the envelope pushing continues in the film. There no doubt will be Shrek branded merchandise flooding the market over the next several months. It will be up to parents to filter which images they are willing to expose their children to.
VMan's spread comes in anticipation of the film’s world premiere at the TriBeCa film festival on April 21. It will be released in theaters across the U.S. on May 21.