Our Ten’s List: The BEST and WORST Live Action Fairy Tales.
Which live action fairy tales stand the test of time…and which are best locked away in a castle dungeon?
With Disney’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast busting records, we look at other versions of fairy tales that have graced the big screen. While Disney has largely cornered the market as of late, there have been many many films based on classic folk tales to choose from. Some languished in obscurity, while others became big hits. We look back at films about fables, both classic and modern, trying to find the one that is just right.
BEST and WORST Live Action Fairy Tales.
5. The Little Mermaid
A young mermaid caught between two worlds trades away her oceanic birthright in order to find love with a land dwelling mortal.
Best: Splash (1984)
Starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, this fish out of water tale updates the classic to 1980’s New York. As a child, Allen nearly drowned but was saved by an adolescent mermaid. Her touch allowed him to breath underwater, and they formed a strong emotional bond. Years later, weary of the grind in the big city, he returns to the ocean and meets his mermaid again. Taking human form and the name Madison, she explores the human world, only to become the focus of a crazy scientist trying to prove mermaids exist (Eugene Levy.) Allen and Madison escape those pursuing them, and Allen decides to abandon his life top side and join her under the sea.
The cast in this comedy is top notch. Hanks was at the most productive period of his comedy career, as was arguably Eugene Levy, and an able assist by John Candy as Allen’s brother rounds out a very funny cast. A satirical look at love, society, and city life, Splash is funny and poignant. I love that it turns the tables on the usual outcome and has the human give up his life on land to be with the person he loves.
Worst: The Little Mermaid (1976)
A Soviet-era adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic.
This film isn’t bad, so much as it is rather unpolished and wildly eclectic when it comes to visuals. It has a nice frame narrative featuring Hans Andersen, and it stays largely faithful to the original story. That being said, it has a hard time communicating the subtleties of the story. It either remains opaque, or must ham-fist the plot through dialogue. If you love the story, this isn’t a terrible film, but 1975’s Japanese animated film, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, did everything here much better.
4. Peter Pan
A mischievous boy who never ages recruits children who long for adventure to join him in Never Never Land, a fantasy island with Pirates and fairies.
Best: Hook (1991)
A comedy about a grown up Peter Pan (Robin Williams) who must confront his old nemesis, Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) while regaining his childhood sense of wonder.
One of the best comedies of all time, packed full of talent and great dialogue. Despite being such a departure from the original premise, it manages to remain completely faithful to the heart and soul of the original. With both Robin Williams and Bob Hoskins recent passing, this film becomes more emotionally powerful than ever.
Worst: Pan (2015)
A prequel to the original story, we discover how young Peter was stolen from the real world and taken to Never Never Land by the infamous sky-pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman.)
I’ve covered in depth how flawed this film was when it came out. It is tone deaf in so many ways, it tells a largely forgettable story, and it really adds nothing new to the myth. At no point was the wonder and joy of the original on display. It is a travesty that rummaged through Peter Pan’s belongings and threw them up onto the screen with no identity of its own.
3. Sleeping Beauty
An enchanted princess suffers from a curse of eternal sleep, waiting for a prince to wake her with a magic kiss.
Best: Enchanted (2007)
Another modern adaptation, Enchanted has the princess travel to modern New York instead of fall into eternal slumber. There, she learns a thing or two about modern love and questions her blind faith in “happily ever after endings.”
A nice mash up of elements from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White (more later), Enchanted manages to retain much of the charm of Disney’s prince and princess stories while also having a subversive element of empowerment and self determination. I know, women making their own decisions in a Disney movie! I nearly fainted.
Worst: Maleficent (2014)
A prequel and re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty that follows the villainess Maleficent, showing how betrayal by a human causes her to curse Princess Aurora.
Attempting to follow in the footsteps of Wicked, this villain focused narrative can’t seem to decide where to stand. It wants to give Angelina Jolie plenty of evil scenery to chew her way through, but it also wants her to be sympathetic and, eventually, heroic. The story is convoluted and bloated, throwing in gigantic CGI battle scenes aplenty, but it never feels authentic or exciting. There was a chance for magic here, and a role fit for a strong leading lady, but this film pricks its finger on sanctimony and prosaic motifs and caused the audience to fall asleep.
2. Snow White
A young princess draws the ire of a vain evil Queen, and must flee into the forest in order to escape her dark plans.
Best: Snow White, a Tale of Terror (1997)
A Gothic slant to the original tale, this version spends more time on the evil queen, played by Sigourney Weaver, and her ties to dark magic.
Despite the terrifying maturity of many of the Grimm’s Brothers and Mr. Andersen’s tales, very few iterations are willing to indulge the more macabre elements (not to mention all of the dripping sensuality latent in this film.) A Tale of Terror can be a touch melodramatic, but it makes up for that with style. The settings are richly detailed and terrifying, there is enough blood and murder to keep enthusiasts entertained, and the special effects and make-up are grotesque and wonderful. Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill both deliver outstanding performances in this mature version of Snow White.
Worst: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
In this version of Snow White, the maiden (Kristen Stewart) is led into the forest by a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) who is tasked with killing her by the evil queen. Instead of kill her, he takes her to safety, and trains her to be a bad ass warrior.
Like so many of the fantasy films of the early 2010’s, Snow White and the Huntsman tries to up the stakes of the story by injecting plenty of tedious CGI battle sequences. While I like that Snow White gets to be the hero of her own damn story, it’s handled in the classically clueless way of most movies: if you want to show an empowered woman, just write her character like she’s a prince instead of a princess and swap some pronouns. You never feel like she has an interior life, she just goes from a victim to a power fantasy after a few montages. Oh, and she still gets saved a ton by the handsome dudes around her, and needs their love to triumph. Fantastic.
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Precocious young Alice finds her way into a fantasy world peopled with crazy and bizarre characters, all while to trying to catch up to a white rabbit.
Best: Alice in Wonderland (1985)
A made for television event which covers Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, pretty much line for line.
This star studded mini-series lays the charm on pretty thick. It lives and dies on its musical set pieces, and the cast is more than able to execute them flawlessly. Old stars such as Red Button, Cid Ceasar, Imogene Coca, Merv Griffin, and Steve Allen mingle with talented performers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Ringo Starr. The production even has Ernest Borgnine, for Pete’s sake! Young Alice is cute and capable, though an uncredited actress gave voice to her songs.
My favorite aspect, besides the clown car of talented actors this movie trots out, is the design of the series. The costumes are whimsical and pretty, the sets are filled with detail and color, and the creatures are both charming and otherworldly. Especially the Jabberwocky. Holy heck, is the design on that fire breathing monstrosity a terror inducing treat. If it weren’t for all of the dear and funny faces found in Alice’s Wonderland, it could have been a movie to Ruin Your Childhood!
Worst: Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Disney wrenches the story of Alice out of proportion to allow The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to be the main character, and to serve as Alice’s knight errant through a terrifying world of CG chicanery.
Did you know that The Mad Hatter was the star of Alice in Wonderland? Well, you could have guessed he would be, when Disney decided to pluck their Caribbean pirate Johnny Depp and plunk him down into this water-logged story. The visuals are a fright, and not in a good way. A distorted Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen is grotesque and horrifying. The story has barely any semblance to the original, just trading upon well worn characters as an excuse to shove more computer animated visuals at the audience. Lewis Carroll’s story dealt pretty frankly with insanity; I guess this film decided to take him at his word and see how batshit crazy a film they could concoct.
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