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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Once Upon a Time (originally published 8/98)

It's no accident that fairy tales have endured as long as they have. These timeless, powerful narratives helped us survive childhood by cloaking difficult life lessons in the kind of fantasy imagery that we could accept at that tender age. At the same time, they gave us vital training in the use of metaphor to interpret the world, a tool that would become invaluable in carrying us through adulthood with our sanity intact and our humanity enriched. Small wonder then that storytellers, including filmmakers, tend to return to these highly significant stories for inspiration. Just change some names, update the setting, and back off on the fantasy imagery, and you've got a version of the fairy tale that grownups can appreciate without feeling as if they've forfeited their adult sophistication. That's more or less the approach taken by the creators of "Ever After," the current Drew Barrymore vehicle that presents the story of "Cinderella" in contemporary terms, notwithstanding the fact that the action is set in the 16th Century.

Although "Ever After" takes significant liberties with its fairy tale source, it is actually rather modest in that regard when compared with some of the variations other filmmakers have already wrought on these classic tales. For a sampling of just how far a fairy tale can be bent, look for the following titles on home video.

"Ball of Fire" (1941). The screenwriting team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were responsible for some of the cleverest scripts ever to come out of Hollywood. Here they update the story of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" by introducing a lively young nightclub singer (Barbara Stanwyck) into the sedate lives of eight college professors. The reason for the extra "dwarf" is that one of them, played by Gary Cooper, turns out in the end to be more the handsome prince type.

"Cinderfella" (1960). This comic retelling of "Cinderella" was created as a vehicle for Jerry Lewis. Naturally, Lewis plays the lead, which entails a gender change for the main character, but that's only the beginning. The fairy godmother has also been changed into a fairy godfather, played by comic great Ed Wynn. Lewis's films tend to fall into two categories: those with broad appeal and those that can only be enjoyed by the hardcore Lewis fans. This one tends toward the latter category. The faithful will have good time. Others should approach with caution.

"Who Slew Auntie Roo?" (1971). During the sixties it became fashionable to make gothic horrorshows featuring female stars whose heyday had been some twenty years earlier. It began with "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" (1962), in which Bette Davis co-starred with Joan Crawford. The trend was beginning to lose steam by the time director Curtis Harrington made this creepy contemporary version of "Hansel and Gretel." Shelley Winters stars as the forbidding inhabitant of an imposing house into which orphaned children are invited every Christmas. Mark Lester and Chloe Franks play a pair of children who believe that they've stumbled onto a less than noble motive behind the spinster's charity.

"The Company of Wolves" (1984). Writer-director Neil Jordan rocked the world of cinema in 1992 with "The Crying Game," but I knew he had the goods almost a decade earlier when I saw this inspired take on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Jordan takes the fairy tale's psychosexual subtext and makes it overt. This film seemed to have some trouble finding its audience, which is not surprising considering that it hovers somewhere between being a horror film and an art film. It's probably too much like a werewolf movie to appeal to the arthouse sensiblitiy, but not really horrific enough to pull in the slasher movie fans. It is, however, an intelligent and imaginative meditation on the fears and anxieties that can accompany the beginnings of sexual awakening.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that "The Company of Wolves" and "Who Slew Auntie Roo?" are not children's movies despite their fairy tale origins. When we remove fairy tales from their original context, what had been a charming children's story often stands revealed as supremely disturbing material. That, after all, is the genius, and the value, of the fairy tale tradition: to make palatable what would otherwise be insupportable so that young psyches can grow without suffering damage.

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