Written by Daniel Simpson
One of the growing trends in modern cinema is the live-action fairy tale, with Disney currently leading the charge. We’ve already got Cinderella and Maleficent, adaptations like The Little Mermaid and Snow White are on the way, and of course, this Friday sees the release of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Little of this trend has done much for me and I think the aforementioned Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont adaptation coming later this week looks pretty lame. Still, there have been some exciting live-action fairy tales throughout cinema and it’s a good time to take a look at some of the best. Fair warning, I’m taking a pretty broad approach to the term “fairy-tale” that differs pretty hard from the princess-centric image of the fairy-tale that Disney has helped solidify.
5. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Though it is technically only based on the original silent film of the same name, The Thief of Bagdad draws heavily from Arabian Nights. Arabian Nights does of course differ from the standard definition of a fairy-tale (which are usually from Europe), but the texts has been acknowledged as a “fairy-tale” in its own right and The Thief of Bagdad came to inform much of Disney’s Aladdin. The film spots some beautiful colour cinematography, ground-breaking special effects, and brings to life a wonderful adventure. It certainly isn’t the most sophisticated movie and it doesn’t have some of the morals fairy-tales tend to preach, but it’s good fun.
4. Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Though Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast is almost certain to go down as the definitive cinematic adaptation of the story, my personal favourite is Jean Cocteau’s film version from 1946. What strikes me most about this version is how it directly confronts the darkness at the heart of the central romance. In fact, the film even implies that The Beast is a full-on schemer and that his relationship with Belle is a lot more sinister and manipulative. The actual make-up on The Beast isn’t really the best, but Jean Marais gives a really good performance which does a good job building a sympathetic character while still maintaining those aforementioned darker edges. I also love the visualization of The Beast’s castle, which is mesmerizing and beautiful but also a little haunting. In many ways, the movie edges very close to horror without fully embracing those aspects. If this adaptation has a major problem, it’s that Belle herself is a little bland and doesn’t hold a candle to what Disney would later do to the character. Still, Jean Cocteau’s film excels thanks to its ambiguity and visual splendor.
3. The Wizard of Oz
If there’s one title which has challenged Disney’s supremacy on fairy-tale/fantasy adventures for kids over the years, it’s MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. It’s perhaps hard to appreciate just how significant the film is. The story, imagery, lines, and characters are so imbued in pop-culture that there’s a tendency to take the film itself for granted. The tale itself is a straight-forward but rewarding journey which sees protagonist Dorothy meet all manner of interesting people while exploring a fascinating world of Technicolor magic. The message the film eventually comes to is very simplistic and maybe not all that useful but the journey itself has been so fun it hardly seems to matter. The film is also full of iconic songs, great moments, and generally creates a real sense of wonder.
2. The Red Shoes
Hans Christian Andersen is perhaps the master of fairy-tales, whose works include “The Little Mermaid”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Ugly Duckling”, Thumbelina”, and “The Nightingale”. “The Red Shoes”, meanwhile, is not among his most iconic works, but it did serve as the basis for one of the greatest examples of fairy-tale cinema. The Red Shoes is not an exact adaptation of Andersen’s story, but rather revolves around a ballet company performing the tale and specifically the young ballerina whose dedication to her craft comes to tear her life apart. Like The Wizard of Oz, The Red Shoes is perhaps best remembered for it’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and the results are indeed stunning. The film also features some amazing dance sequences with the titular performance of “The Red Shoes” being sublime. However, it is the film’s rich thematic content which propel it to the stratosphere of masterpiece status. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the core themes of Andersen’s work to tell a story of artistic ambition and obsession. It’s a film which asks hard questions about what you are willing to sacrifice for what you love but it also doesn’t present the central dilemma as morally black and white. There’s a tremendous feminist undercurrent to the story given that it basically becomes about two men trying to subject their will on one woman. Is it the men who bear the full responsibility for what happened? Possibly, but the film never turns to didactic moralizing. That sort of ambiguity does set it apart from most fairy-tales as does the fact that this one takes place largely in the real world, but it draws from its fairy-tale source visually and thematically to excellent effect, creating a work that transcends any limitations of the source material.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth
Boy oh boy did I struggle between this and The Red Shoes for the number one spot. Ultimately, I do think the latter is the superior film overall, but judging both movies strictly as pieces belonging to the fairy-tale genre, it’s hard to argue against Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. Interestingly, Pan’s Labyrinth is the only film in this list to not be overtly based on a specific fairy-tale, though it certainly draws inspiration from a number of classics as well as non-fairy-tale art. The result is a film which fits right in with the conventions of fairy-tale storytelling (magical creatures, moral lessons, elements of myth), but still feels strikingly original and unique. The fantasy world young Ofelia encounters is often quite bleak and horrific, but not more so than her real life, with her mother having married the brutal fascist Captain Vidal during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. That balance between fantasy and humanity is what gives Pan’s Labyrinth an edge over similar fantasy films. For as twisted and grotesque as many of the creatures in the film are (here’s looking at you, Pale Man) the human characters are remarkably well-drawn. Captain Vidal in particular is a hard-hearted bastard but is depicted in such a way where we still see his humanity. The film is a lot darker than what audiences have come to expect from fairy-tales (though this is probably a lot more accurate given the dark roots of the genre) and the film’s message of resistance to authoritarian power are a lot more adult than, “there’s no place like home”. The fact that Del Toro is drawing from a genre which has all too often been reduced to “kids stuff” in a modern context in order to express these very adult themes is all the more impressive.