When it comes to movies, fairy tale retellings are probably the genre in which I watch most diversely. As a child, I didn’t care much whether I watched a dubbed version, where the movie was made, or how bad the special effects were. The Czech and Finnish movies I loved then are still enjoyable now (dubbed or with subtitles) and despite having watched every new fairy tale adaptation I could get my hands on, some of my favorites are still old movies that I only own on VHS cassette.
The Little Mermaid (1975, Czechoslovakia)
This is the first version of the Little Mermaid I ever saw which kept the original ending. I was a child and only knew the Disney version up until then, so I fully expected a happy ending. Apart from killing herself at the end and turning into seafoam, a lot of the story before that was changed. The merpeople have their own culture and rituals, the little mermaid’s mother died young but nobody will tell her how… it’s intriguing and very pretty to look at.
To this day, I can not understand why the little mermaid found that particular prince so swoonworthy (look at that hair) but there were so many little details that make this movie worthwile. If you remember that the price for getting a pair of legs isn’t just her loss of voice but also constant pain, you’ll appreciate the scene when she walks down the beach to wash her feet, leaving bloody footprints in the sand.
Unlike the Disney version, this is not a musical, but music plays a part. The little mermaid is revered as the most beautiful singer and shows off her talent right in the beginning. The songs she sings are melancholy and dark and almost a harbinger of things to come. I’ve only ever heard them sung by the German voice actress who dubbed the movie but I’m sure we can track down the original somewhere on the internet.
Another thing worth mentioning is how much time the movie spends under the sea. The actors are obviously not under actual water but their flowy robes and dresses, their insane hair gives the impression of it. It’s an altogether magical movie with an appropriately sad ending. But as it’s the only one I know that follows Hans Christian Andersen’s story line so faithfully, it will forever remain a favorite.
Perinbaba (1985 , Chzechoslovakia)
(The Feather Fairy, Frau Holle)
“Frau Holle” or, the Feather Fairy if you like, shakes out her pillows and so makes it snow on Earth. This movie has little in common with the fairy tale except there is an old woman sitting on a mountain, making the weather. In the fairy tale, two sisters (one good, one evil) each visit Frau Holle and do household chores. The good sister is rewarded with gold, the evil one with tar… there’s the Grimm brothers for you.
In this Czech adaptation, a boy is the protagonist and Perinbaba is only Frau Holle in that she can make snow, rainbows, wind, etc. Jakub, her helping hand, doesn’t want to stay on top of a mountain with her, even if it makes him immortal. He wants to go down to earth, grow old and die, with a wife by his side. He defies death, Frau Hippe (another old woman, with a scithe) on several occasions and wins the heart of the young Elisabeth. She lives like Cinderella with her stepmother and stepsister and Jakub helps her break out of that life.
There are bits of this movie I hate with the fire of a thousand volcanoes. The stepmother and sister are so obviously evil schemers that it pains me how bild Elisabeth’s father is to all of this. Said father is also incredibly dumb and fickle. Jakub helps around the house and seems to be good at everything he does – so Elisabeth’s father praises him and thinks of marrying one of his daughters to him. One day, Elisabeth’s peacocks are found dead in the shed and Jakub was supposed to watch them. Instead of – like a normal person – being mad and disappointed, Elisabeth’s father immediately switches sides and now hates Jakub. Go figure.
But what I really love about this movie are two things: One is the music. Sure, the music that is played is clearly not played by the characters pretending to play the flute, but hey, we’ll suspend our disbelief. The second is the whole Perinbaba mythology. Jakub was saved by her and helps her out making snow (which means jumping on a gigantic bedsheet that looks like a bouncy castle). When he explores their home and steps on a balcony, he immediately ages. So the spell of immortality only lasts inside Perinbaba’s home. In order to get down to the world, he fills a bed sheet with air and uses it like a balloon.
Do not think too much about the intricacies of real life when you watch this movie. Just enjoy it for its simplicity and its lovely ideas about life. After all, who would want to make snow for all eternity when they can have a full life with friends and family down on earth – even if it means eventually dying.
Lumikuningatar (1986, Finland)
(The Snow Queen)
I have an old VHS cassette of this movie from when my grandmother recorded it for me from TV. The tape is nearly unwatchable now, it jumps, the sound is messed up, the quality ghastly. But I went so far as to watch the entire thing on youtube in Finnish. And what I realised is an important plus for this movie.
Language doesn’t matter all too much here. When Gerda goes on her journey to find Kai, she meets all sorts of strange characters and stumbles into dark and dangerous places. Of course she talks to those characters and they may tell her important information in return, but even if you don’t understand a word they’re saying you will still get the idea of what’s going on. And you can enjoy the two most stunning aspects of the movie: the music and the visuals.
The soundtrack is absolutely magical! There are few movies that, at the same time remind me so much of my childhood that it hurts, and inspire me so strongly to go out and make something new. The Snow Queen soundtrack is like that.
As for the look of this movie, it is something straight out of a fairy tale. Not only are their bright, oversaturated colors, you get scenes with human statues painted all in gold, witches with tin man guards in front of her house, the snow queen with her green crown… and in the middle of it all, Gerda in her yellow dress. Also worth mentioning are the strange dream sequences that may not actually be dreams. Gerda clearly wants to be a ballerina, she dances on the beach with Kai just before he leaves with the Snow Queen. The ballett scenes exist to show Gerda’s progress from a little outcast girl whose clothes and shoes don’t match those of the other dancers, to a stronger girl who saved her friend and fits right in. I don’t quite know what to make of these scenes but they are beautiful to look at.
Every second of this movie is atmospheric, at times sinister, at times just gorgeous, but always intense. As my experience with youtube goes to show (I only wanted to hear what it sounds like in Finnish), you get sucked into this colorful world and can’t leave until Kai is safe and Gerda’s adventure finished.
Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998, USA)
This might just be my favorite fairy tale movie, even though I can’t put my finger on why. I have watched it over and over and over again, sometimes twice in a row, and I still am not tired of it.
Drew Barrymore is adorable, Dougray Scott (generally not my type) sweeps me off my feet every time. They threw in DaVinci and French royalty that speaks English, gypsies that play rock-paper-scissors and all sorts of other shenanigans. But the romance is beautiful in every way and veers from the insta-love that fairy tales are so prone to.
Danielle de Barbarac loses her father as a young girl and is left with her stepmother and stepsisters – so far, so faithful to Cinderella. She also reads books by the fireplace which leaves her covered in soot. There is also a prince that the stepsisters are trying to catch but who falls in love with Danielle. The fairy tale is there, it’s intact, but it’s the surroundings that make Ever After so wonderful. Danielle doesn’t dream of catching a prince, or even just a husband. She has made her own family with the house servants and she’s going to protect them no matter what. The scene where the servants are reunited and group hug in the garden still brings tears to my eyes. Other than the prince, Danielle also has strong ideas about politics.
Which leads me to Henry, a young prince who wants to be anything but. He enjoys his wealth and easy life but being married off to some Spanish princess crosses his line. What’s so lovely about Danielle and Henry together is that they teach one another more about the world, their perspectives are so different but, in coming together, create something new. They grow and learn and mature because of each other – no wonder they fall in love.
The side characters may not get many lines but they all feel like real, well-rounded people. Danielle’s relationship with her stepmother tears me apart every time. That young girl just wants to be loved and gets nothing but scorn and hatred in return. The ending is all the more satisfying for it. And the movie doesn’t even need the slightest bit of magic to shine.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror
I seem to be the only person in the world who loves this movie to bits. Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen is brilliant when she goes from believably caring wife to crazy murderous witch. But what I always liked best about this horror movie was Lilli’s (Snow White) time with the “dwarves”. They aren’t particularly deep characters but at least the do get a back story. And – go ahead, push all my buttons – Snow White falls in love with one of them, not the handsome prince.
But let’s start at the beginning. This movie really belongs to Sigourney Weaver as the evil witch, and doesn’t even focus so much on Snow White. The first time I watched it, it really felt like a horror movie. When Frederick Hoffman marries another woman, Lilli is cautious and not too thrilled. Soon after that her nursemaid is killed in front of her – chocked to death by an invisible spell – right after she touched the queen’s mirror. What follows is straight up Snow White, with Lilli running off into the forest and the huntsman (the queen’s mute brother) trying to kill her.
What really kicks off the story for me is Lilli’s meeting with the dwarves. They aren’t really dwarves but they live in the shadows, work in the mines, and make do with what they have. During those scenes, we get an idea for the first time of what is wrong with the kingdom as a whole. While the beginning was set only in the castle and focused on what is essentially royalty, the politics of the country weren’t very clear. They still aren’t when Lilli meets the dwarves but at least there are hints here and there that not all is well with the world.
The evil witch tries to kill Lilli on several occasions but what’s really interesting is her obsession with having a child. She lost her first son in childbirth and is now turning to magic to revive him. It’s creepy on so many levels and involves stealing her husband’s sperm. After that you get what you expect. Poisoned apple, old crone, glass coffin, the whole shebang. I don’t think I’ll spoil anything if I say Lilli does wake up, but it’s not through a kiss.
This isn’t by far a perfect movie but considering how dark fairy tales are, I love that someone decided to make a straight-up horror film about it. It’s not just cleaning the dwarves’ house while singing with forest animals, there is very little fun involved here. But the atmosphere of the movie keeps drawing me in and I will never apologizse for loving it.
La belle et la bête (2014, France)
(Beauty and the Beast)
I just got the DVD a week ago and I watched it twice in a row. That alone should tell you that it’s a pretty movie. I say pretty because the visuals outdo the story. In creating a backstory for Belle’s father and brothers, the entire family gains more depth, but there is far less time for Belle and the Beast’s development as a couple. However, the castle and landscape shots are so stunning that I had the urge to hit pause and look at all the loving detail for a while. I did enjoy the Beast’s backstory. It departs from what we know from Disney and gives us a tortured, sad, lonely man who was never truly evil, just careless with the things he loved.
Belle and her sisters are a fairy tale cliché if I ever saw one. While they are greedy and vain, Belle is content with the little things in life. She loves having her father around and tending the garden. After the family lost everything and Belle’s father stumbles home from the city, he comes across the Beast’s castle and the Beast offers him a bargain. He may take the rose he cut but he has to send his youngest daughter – or the entire family dies.
Belle runs off to save her family and is awaited by a gorgeous castle and the most beautiful dresses you can imagine. She dines with the Beast every evening but at night, she is plagued by visions of the past. It is through these visions that we get to see the Beast’s backstory, how he came to be a monster. I was so surprised when I saw the German singer/actress Yvonne Catterfeld as the princess – she does such an excellent job! Since Black Swan everybody knows Vincent Cassel. He may not have the looks of your average fairy tale prince, but he plays his part incredibly well. My favorite scene is the one on the frozen lake – there were some serious tingles happening there.
Because of the long introduction to Belle’s family, some aspects of the castle were left unexplored. Sure, Belle wanders around and in the process offers us some of the most visually stunning shots of the movie. But the castle bristles with magic and small, beagle-like creatures, that I would have liked to see more of. It also could have used more dialogue, especially between Belle and the Beast. I can see how Belle’s regard for him grew as she learned about his past, but in the present, they don’t really share an awful lot of time.
The entire story is told to two children by their mother. I don’t know why the director tried to make a secret out of the mother’s identity. It is clearly Belle’s voice and so we know that she gets her happily ever after. This is a fairy tale, people. We know how it ends.
This may not be the best fairy tale adaptation I’ve ever seen but it sure is gorgeous to look at and creates a new myth for the beast and how to break his spell. Recommended.
Blancanieves (2012, Spain)
My heart bleeds! As fairy tale adaptations and retellings go, the last years have been a long string of disappointments with the exception of Blancanieves, which absolutely blew me away. I saved the most heartbreaking for last and it’s a silent movie, too!
I believe this movie is best enjoyed knowing almost nothing about it, so I’m keeping the gushing to a minimum. This is Snow White told through the eyes of a bullfighter’s daughter in the 1920s. From the very beginning, I was enthralled by the black and white pictures, the music, and especially the actors. Carmen’s relationship to her father is heartbreaking and brings some of the most painful and the most beautiful moments of the entire movie.
The evil witch in this case is a jealous stepmother who wants nothing but money and fame but cares little about her disabled husband or her stepdaughter. Because she reveres her father, Carmen practices to become a bullfighter too. She joins a troupe of bullfighting dwarves and there is a little bit of romance between her and Rafita – although it may be one-sided.
The ending just tore my heart out and trampled all over it. You all need to go watch this movie right now. This is what a fairy tale adaptation should be like. The old tale is still recognisable underneath, but new layers are added to everything, and the characters are brought to life in all their painful glory. I think I’m going to watch it again right now. Hand me some tissues, will you?