Top 10 Fairy Tales in Cinema
By James Oliver
These days, cinematic 'fairy tales' are associated with Disney or Shrek – children's films in other words, often smothered in irony. But peer into film history and you'll see that many filmmakers have been inspired by folk stories and the like.
What follows is ten of the best with video clips. And so, if you're sitting comfortably, we'll begin. Once upon a time...
NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK
Where better to start? An old man reads to his grandson, a handsome hero falls in love – you could say that's the very essence of fairy tales. The Princess Bride isn't based on a specific story – it's a tribute to all of them, and thoroughly enjoyable to boot.
Catherine Breillat is the bad girl of French cinema, obsessed with sex and... well, mainly sex. Not the most obvious candidate, then, to make a fairy tale and yet she succeeds with aplomb. Owing more to Angela Carter than the Brothers Grimm, Bluebeard shows her affinity with the form.
8. Donkey Skin
Who better than Catherine Deneuve to play a fairy-tale princess? She looks radiant even when, as here, she appears to be sporting a novelty animal hat. Adapted from one of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (about a princess, her fairy godmother and aforementioned novelty animal hat) Donkey Skin is as charming, colourful and camp as you'd expect from a film directed by Jacques Demy.
Subtitled 'A German Folk Tale', FW Murnau's final German film tells the old story of the scholar who sold his soul. Using effects that still look pretty special nearly 90 years later, Murnau conjured up devilment and delight, brilliantly evoking a world of pre-scientific metaphysics. Often misunderstood, this is maybe the purest statement of Murnau's world-view.
Derived from the 1001 Nights (see also: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), The Thief of Bagdad is one of the most purely pleasurable films ever made, a glowing tribute to the pleasures of storytelling. This sequence (filmed in exotic Cornwall rather than distant Araby) sees Sabu messing with a Genie. Be sure to note the Genie's magnificent toenails at 02.11
Lotte Reiniger was one of the greatest craftsmen (er...women) of cinema; she specialised in 'silhouette' films in which intricate cut-outs were given joyful life by her fluid animation. If the stories are familiar – she specialised in fairy tales – then the beauty of her technique makes her films a constant delight.
Because it's not just Europe that has folk tales. One of the most extraordinary films ever made, Kwaidan is a visually ravishing phantasmagoria, adapted from four stories by Lafcadio Hearn (an Irishman, as it happened), whose writings were based on traditional Japanese tales. This trailer gives but a flavour of its brilliance...
The Matter of Britain has never been told as majestically as in John Boorman's masterpiece. Intense, stirring, mystical, triumphant, this is the outstanding modern version of the King Arthur legend. Here, Arthur drinks from the Holy Grail, finds his purpose renewed and rides off to kick some ass. And when the Old Spice music starts, turn it up LOUD.
Often copied, never bettered, Cocteau's poetic rendering of the timeless tale is one of the most bewitching enchantments cinema can offer. It is a simple film, made with modest resources in a country still recovering from war. And yet it is possessed of an authentic magic; it is a film even cynics can believe in.
No, it's not set in ye olde times and, no, it's not based on any classic myth. But few films better evoke the atmosphere of fairy tales than Night of the Hunter. A film suffused with an elemental sense of good and evil, it brings traditional archetypes – innocent children, wicked stepfathers, kindly old women – into the twentieth century and makes depression-era America as mythical as any European kingdom. And just to be thoroughly subjective, this clip might be my favourite two minutes in the whole of cinema.