POSTED March 2 2013

Hollywood’s new fractured fairytales

UnknownFor a story truly to hold a child’s attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him….In all these and many other respects….nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairy tale.

— Bruno Bettelheim

The good Dr. Bettelheim, an educator and psychotherapist of severely disturbed children, wrote the book (The Uses of Enchantment, 1975on the deeper meanings that reside in fairy tales. He noted how through their overt and covert meanings fairytales could communicate both to the uneducated and the sophisticated, which make them the ideal source material for mass entertainment.

Does this explain the current Hollywood fairytale-revival? (See Shrek, Ella Enchanted,  Enchanted, Ever After, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman and the new release, Jack the Giant Slayer. Coming soon is Malificent, told from the perspective of Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis and starring Angelina Jolie. Just yesterday were reports that Emma Watson, Harry Potter’s Hermione, is being courted to play Cinderella).

Filmmakers disparate as Walt Disney  (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Michael Powell (The Red Shoes) and Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast) already knew this. Fairy-tale collectors — Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm – were the subjects of biopics. Still,  before Shrek, Disney –whose sanitizing of folk tales, particularly his “insipid” Cinderella, irritated Bettelheim — was one of the few Hollywood filmmakers to mine fairy tales as a narrative natural resource. (Because fairytales are stories that have multiple versions, a producer doesn’t have to pay for book rights, another plus.)

In her review of Jack the Giant Slayer, Manohla Dargis suggests that the impulse behind many of the titles in Hollywood’s fairy-tale revival are revisionist feminist takes on the stories we all grew up with (see Ever After, Red Riding Hood and Mirror, Mirror). Me, I regard most of these films, especially Shrek, as contemporary versions of the “Fractured Fairytales” segment on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show.

Can you think of other reasons that the fairytale is like Sleeping Beauty awaiting a resuscitating kiss from Hollywood’s Prince Charming? Do any of the new films have the primal force of Powell’s Red Shoes or Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast?


  1. I can only dream that we might see again the wit and charm of Fractured Fairy Tales. It’s natural that for commercial reasons Hollywood films new versions of classic stories with the latest crop of stars. It’s unfortunately also predictable that the films will mostly be mediocre.

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