Fairy tales aren’t just for kids anymore. Is that a cliché yet? If not, it most certainly will be by the time you finish reading this post. It seems like every day there’s a new film or television project announced that will re-interpret the stories of Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. The trend first became painfully obvious to me at about this time last year, when faced with Beastly, Red Riding Hood and the NYC premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty. Since then we’ve gotten Grimm and Once Upon a Time on TV, planned films like Angelina Jolie’s impending Maleficent, and of course this weekend’s Mirror Mirror and the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Most of us associate these stories with their glossy Disney adaptations, beautifully animated confections with original music that most of us keep either close to our hearts or etched into our memories. To see Snow White tackled by Tarsem Singh or Sleeping Beauty brought crashing into the 21st century by Breillat (or Julia Leigh) is jarring, to say the least. Yet we often forget how dark, bloody and thematically complex these tales were to begin with. If anyone ripped Perrault unceremoniously from his context it was good old Walt.
So where do we stand? Our new wave of fairy tales for adult audiences (and teen hordes) is caught between two conflicting traditions. Both the innocent glittering fantasies of the Golden Age of Animation and their dark pre-modern antecedents loom large over any contemporary adaptation. To succeed, a film has to find its own place between these two drastically different strains and then go about creating its own identity. Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty is a marvel. Beastly and Red Riding Hood? Not so much. Thankfully, there are some marvelous animated fairy tale shorts to show us how it’s done. Here’s a handful of five, each a unique taste of the various ways these projects can be approached.
Keep It Simple: Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, by Lotte Reiniger
Three decades passed between the 1926 premiere of Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, and this 1954 American-produced short. Yet the similarity is striking, and not because of the shared source material (1001 Arabian Nights). Reiniger’s artistic vision, a unique perspective in the history of animation, is remarkably consistent over the years. Her skill with intricate silhouettes brings the simplest stories to life, granting them both the intimacy of a puppet theater and the timeless reverence of a truly ancient fable. The beauty of her shadowy images works best with the most basic of storytelling narration, and her success shows us that sometimes it’s best to leave a good tale alone.
Bring the Style Up to Date: Snow White, by Dave Fleischer
While Reiniger brings her stories to life with a technique absolutely steeped in tradition, Dave Fleischer and Fleischer Studios almost violently yank Snow White into the world of early 1930s cartoons. And who better than Betty Boop to shock some wild living into the Brothers Grimm? It admittedly doesn’t make all that much sense, but it doesn’t really have to. The point is the excessive style, from the Cab Calloway tunes to the constant kinetic energy of early sound cartoons. Everything is alive and dancing along, including all seven dwarves and a mysterious clown that seems to come from nowhere. With reckless abandon, Fleischer Studios offers up a compelling case for the adaptation-run-amok.
Sex It Up: Red Hot Riding Hood, by Tex Avery
While on the subject of cartoons, let’s jump ahead exactly a decade to the equally rambunctious Tex Avery. Red Hot Riding Hood takes the carnivalesque atmosphere of Betty Boop’s romp in the snow, tightens it, and adds a bit of cynical self-awareness. In the false opening of this clever film, Little Red, the Wolf and Grandma themselves are sick of the traditional telling of the story, and demand a more exciting cartoon. Avery delivers by giving them a noir homage to the maxim that sex sells. The nightclubs, the massive apartment buildings and the overall feel of a dark 1940s Los Angeles collide with the hilarious sensibilities of this cartoon legend. And as great adaptations often do, it feels no qualms about changing the ending.
A Mish-Mash of Jokes: Sleeping Betty, by Claude Cloutier
It would probably be silly to give all the credit for the fairy tale resurgence to Shrek. Yet the 2001 film and its 700 sequels are a pretty excellent example of the re-mixing that is now happening all over the place. It really is a shame that the Dreamworks property so quickly devolved into an orgy of pop culture shout-outs, because the original comic thrust works quite well. Sleeping Betty is a short example of how the hodge-podge of fairy tale jokes can work wonders without the cast bursting into “Baby Got Back.” Cloutier doesn’t need cheap contemporary gags to get a laugh, building his jokes from creative juxtapositions and winking at our own relationship with these stock characters.
Just Go Crazy: Barbe-Bleue, by Jean Painlevé
If all else fails, just go nuts. Jean Painlevé may not have been a Surrealist himself, but he was certainly connected with the movement and drew from their aesthetic madness in his own work. This stop motion adaptation of the Perrault story is one of the great works of 1930s animation, at once both an impressionistic rendering and a faithful musical adaptation. There’s a sequence in the second half of the short that is about as trippy as you can get in a film released in 1936, yet it seems to fit perfectly into the spirit of the original fairy tale. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Mirror Mirror should have been made with the same technique, but all of these new projects could learn a thing or two from Painlevé’s creativity.