This weekend, Disney looks to give one of its classic properties a “Wicked” revision. Merging the fairy tale origins of Sleeping Beauty with the current spat of gothic action/fantasies, “Maleficent” will have to try awfully hard to prove it’s much more than a cash-grab revival. It might not matter either way at the box office – Disney’s had this particular corner of the film market locked down for oh, getting on towards 80 years now. But it’s not like others haven’t tried to mine similar material. So for your consideration, this week we’re recommending three fairy tale films that don’t hail from the House of Mouse.
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926)
Available on disc from Netflix; purchasable on DVD or Blu-Ray from Amazon (it’s worth it)
No matter what Disney tells you, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was NOT the first animated feature film. That title should go to one of two silent films by Argentinian animator Quirino Cristiani, but unfortunately neither survives today; but we do have “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 adaptation of elements from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Reiniger’s silhouette animation style (made from cardboard cutouts, manipulated frame-by-frame) is fabulously striking, an eerie callback to the shadow puppet shows that prefigured early cinema. Jagged, exaggerated, and haunting, “Prince Achmed” is more Murnau than Disney; an expressionist take on the Arabian fairy tale that fits right into German folkloric traditions.
“The Red Shoes” (1948)
Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina, Robert Helpmann, Esmond Knight
Available to rent from iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
As a child, I found “The Red Shoes” the most perplexing and disturbing of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. For years I lived in fear of each pair of new shoes that came my way, and spent many a night wondering if I too could be carried off to an unfortunate fate by frenzied footwear.
That is, until I saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes.” This luminous film transform the classic fairytale into an allegory about art, sacrifice, and the relentless pursuit of perfection. For Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), the purpose of life is not to live, but to dance. Under the guidance of charismatic ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), she becomes a great dancer, dedicated solely to her art—a choice that becomes increasingly untenable as she falls in love with a young composer. A love triangle of sorts, “The Red Shoes” elevates and universalizes the fairytale, and is also a visual and cinematographic feast. Not only does it feature a 15-minute ballet sequence, but the film—recently restored by Martin Scorsese—is renowned for its bold, vibrant colors (due to a rare technicolor technique) that transform a story about art into a work of art.
“The Frog Prince” (1986)
Cast: Aileen Quinn, Helen Hunt, John Paragon, Clive Revill
Available for the moment via not-so-official-looking channels on YouTube.
“The Frog Prince” is an unlikely candidate for a feature film, since the story basically consists of a spoiled girl kissing an amphibian. Recognizing the problem, the filmmakers changed the story to a time-honored coming-of-age tale featuring a young princess, awkward and lonely, who befriends a frog. Secretly a prince, the frog teaches her how to become a true princess, from maintaining good posture to embracing her heart of gold. The music, mostly sung by Aileen Quinn (of “Annie” fame), is enough to make this movie worth your while. The costumes are absurdly ‘80s, a young Helen Hunt shows up now and again to strut angrily, and there are some fantastic one-liners. Embracing its own campiness, this “Frog Prince” is not about kissing your way to prince charming, but about the heartwarming power of friendship.