Not every fairy tale ends happily ever after.
In Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” the Monty Python-animator-turned-visionary-film-director has crafted a fictitious spin on the lives of the 19th-century folklore collectors. Jacob (Heath Ledger) and Will (Matt Damon) Grimm are scam artists who travel the Napoleonic countryside convincing townsfolk to pay them to get rid of monsters and demons that don’t actually exist. Or so the brothers think.
In real life, the brothers’ fairy tales have, of course, served as the framework for hundreds of feature films and shorts. Storytelling is a constantly evolving art form; as tales pass through the ages, they’re updated and altered to better suit their audience. And while we might first think of the animated Disney versions of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” when we hear those titles, some variations on the tales have been a tad more twisted.
Sigourney Weaver stars in “Snow White: a Tale of Terror” (1997), subtitled presumably to warn off clueless parents who’d expose the tykes
Editor’s Picks: Fractured Fairy Tales
to this decidedly un-Disneyfied live-action adaptation. In the film, Weaver plays Claudia, an unbalanced woman whose miscarriage only increases her resentment of her young, beautiful stepdaughter, Lilliana (Taryn Davis). Fleeing Claudia’s first attempt on her life, Lilliana finds herself holed up with a grubby band of seven gold miners who initially plan to hold her captive for ransom. When Lil is finally done in by the poison apple, it takes an accidental Heimlich maneuver by Will (one of the surrogate dwarves, a scarred commoner rather than a handsome prince) to bring her back. They return to Lilliana’s father’s castle just in time to stop Claudia from slashing his throat. And there’s no Dopey.
Perhaps no other Grimm tale has been retold more often than “Cinderella,” from the 1914 German short “Aschenbrödel” to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1965 musical to “Pretty Woman” (1990) to “Ella Enchanted” (2004) and — heck, why not? — “Cinderella Man” (2005). 1998’s “Ever After,” for example, delivers a “Cinderella” tale minus the fairies. Drew Barrymore plays Danielle de Barbarac, a virtual servant to her horrible stepmother (Anjelica Huston) and her callow daughters. She meets the handsome Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) as he’s stealing a horse from their stable — but you know how girls go for the bad boys. The movie keeps the Cinderella story grounded in reality, eliminating glass slippers, pumpkin carriages and fairy godmothers, creating instead a surprisingly effective romantic period piece.
But our favorite Cinderella story (aside from Carl’s imaginary golf triumph in “Caddyshack”) remains the 1960 gender-twisting “Cinderfella.” Directed by former animator Frank Tashlin, the film stars Jerry Lewis as ‘Fella and the fun-to-say Anna Maria Alberghetti as Princess Charming.
The film is filled with Lewis’ usual klutzy mugging shtick, but set in an updated fairy-tale milieu. When the fairy godfather (Ed Wynn) gives ‘Fella his makeover, Lewis turns into a swanky lounge lizard kinda guy who swings to the sounds of Count Basie. Much maligned by those who can’t wrap their aesthetic around the genius of Jerry, “Cinderfella” admittedly isn’t his best film, but it’s a lot of fun.
The classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies skewered many fairy tales, none more hilariously than the 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon “Little Red Riding Rabbit.” A brash bobbysoxer is bringin’ a li’l bunny rabbit … for her grandma … ta have! Naturally, as that bunny rabbit has the first name of Bugs, things aren’t so cut and dried for Red, even before the wolf shows up. The wolf has no interest in Red — he wants to eat Bugs — but by the end of the cartoon, they’re both so annoyed with the grating granddaughter that she becomes the victim.
But the most demented take by far on any of the Grimms’ tales is the 1996 film “Freeway,” a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” (or “Little Red-Cap,” as it was originally titled) that could give the big bad wolf nightmares. Reese Witherspoon plays Vanessa Lutz, a white-trash teenager with a streak of bad luck that includes abusive, neglectful, imprisoned parents, a drug-dealing, gunned-down boyfriend and her own subsequent incarceration, followed by an escape and a very unfortunate run-in with rapist/serial killer Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland). With shocking, ever-escalating violence, humor as black as a dead-baby joke and an absolutely spellbinding performance by Brooke Shields (really!), this movie is a gut-churning warning to never talk to strangers. Those who know and love Reese Witherspoon from her light romantic comedies are thus duly warned: this is no “Legally Blonde.”
The 2000 TV mini series “The 10th Kingdom” mixed many of the brothers’ yarns into an epic story of a bored New Yorker (Kimberly Williams) and her father (John Larroquette) stumbling upon an alternate fairy-tale universe. Their struggle to find a magic mirror and return to their own, familiar world (while, of course, at the same time helping to save a kingdom from an evil queen) features cameos by grown-up versions of Snow White (Camryn Mannheim), Cinderella (Ann-Margret) and Red Riding Hood (Kim Thomson).
One reason filmmakers love to monkey around with fairy tales is that they all exist in that copyright- and royalty-free world of the public domain. This means that anyone can put out a version of “Snow White” without paying for the rights or fearing lawsuits (a situation that can only drive Disney crazy). The irony here is that many parents seem to ascribe a kind of de facto copyright to the House of Mouse, apparently feeling that less-sanitized versions of beloved fairy tales simply aren’t acceptable.
In fact, the original Grimm stories are really, really grim. In their version of “Cinderella,” the evil stepsisters slice off pieces of their own feet to fit into the glass slipper, and in the end their eyes are plucked out by pigeons as punishment for their selfish ways. It’s amusing to imagine Disney animators trying to figure out a way to make those scenes cute.
The Grimms’ fairy tales are timeless because they tap into primal fears and emotions and are open to endless interpretation. (Can’t “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” be construed as a version of “Hansel and Gretel”?) And there are literally hundreds of tales that have yet to be adapted to film. Maybe if “The Brothers Grimm” is a hit, Terry Gilliam can take a whack at “The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack” or “Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Brothers Grimm.”
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