Total Recall

Total Recall: Big-Screen Fairy Tales

With Snow White and the Huntsman hitting theaters, we run down some memorable films based on folkloric fantasy.

by | May 31, 2012 | Comments

Fairy Tale Movies

Snow White and the Huntsman opens this weekend, following closely behind Mirror Mirror and marking the second trip to theaters for the Fairest of Them All in 2012. With plenty of other folkloric fantasy adaptations in our recent past (Red Riding Hood, Beastly) and plenty more on the horizon (including Jack the Giant Killer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), fairy tales are having something of a moment right now — but as any film fan could tell you, and as this week’s list demonstrates, this is nothing new in Hollywood. There are countless examples of filmmakers turning to fairy tales for inspiration, but we couldn’t possibly fit all those once upon a times and happily ever afters into a single feature. Which of your favorites made the cut? Find out in the latest Total Recall!

Beauty and the Beast


We could have filled this list with Disney pictures, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun — and still, when the time came to pick a Beauty and the Beast for our feature, it was no contest. A huge, Best Picture-nominated hit during its original run — and a big success all over again during its repeated reissues — Disney’s version of this timeless tale is the one that comes to mind for multiple generations when they think of Beauty and the Beast. And while it may have taken a few storyline liberties with the original text (and while the IMAX and 3D additions don’t really improve the story), the most important part remains: As Jay Boyar wrote for the Orlando Sentinel, it “Moves us because we know that true love can sometimes seem like a mismatch. And also because, in love, we can all feel like captives or beasts.”

The Brothers Grimm


Their stories have inspired plenty of films, so it’s only fitting that Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm got to topline their own movie in 2005 — albeit one that starred Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as wildly fictionalized versions of the brothers. With a pair of matinee idols in the leads, Terry Gilliam behind the cameras, and an effects-heavy storyline that pitted the Grimms against a fairy tale curse and a wicked queen, The Brothers Grimm could have been a smash hit; unfortunately, its strife-plagued production only led to indifferent reviews and a mildly disappointing $105 million gross. Still, some critics thought Gilliam’s flair was enough to transcend the film’s flaws; as Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Daily News argued, “You won’t want to pass this version of The Brothers Grimm on to your children. But you may find yourself coming back to marvel at parts of it for the rest of your life.”

Ever After: A Cinderella Story


Starring an utterly winsome Drew Barrymore as the young woman who catches a prince’s eye — but has to overcome her stepmother’s cruel mistreatment to find true love — 1998’s Ever After drew on historical details for its background while offering a postmodern twist to the Cinderella story, positioning its heroine as a woman capable of saving herself from peril (and her royal beau, if need be). Sure, the audience knew the whole story by heart, but with Andy Tennant’s sumptuous direction, a supporting cast that included Anjelica Huston and Dougray Scott, and Barrymore in those glass slippers, they didn’t mind watching it unfold one more time — and neither did Roger Ebert, who proclaimed, “The old tale still has life and passion in it.”



When she made her debut in 1991’s The Man in the Moon, Reese Witherspoon looked like a luminous, innocent kid. Fast-forward five years later to Freeway, and goodness gracious, how things changed: A miniskirt-rocking Witherspoon starred opposite Kiefer Sutherland in this grimy, violent loose update on the story of Red Riding Hood, following a prostitute’s daughter on her dangerous journey up southern California’s I-5 freeway to find her grandmother. (Sutherland, naturally, was the leering serial killer standing in for the wolf.) While not a particularly pleasant film, Freeway earned its young star some career-boosting rave reviews, including Margaret A. McGurk’s writeup for the Cincinnati Enquirer: “I didn’t particularly want to like Freeway,” admitted McGurk, “but I couldn’t help myself. Reese Witherspoon made me.”

Hans Christian Andersen


It’s named after the famous storyteller, but don’t watch 1952’s Hans Christian Andersen looking for a biopic; instead, producer Samuel Goldwyn opted to create a typically lavish musical extravaganza, starring Danny Kaye as Andersen in a sort of fairytale revue that includes nods to “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” As a result, it’s sort of all over the place, but it has a certain gregarious charm that wasn’t lost on audiences, the Academy (who nominated it for six Oscars), or critics; as Variety put it, “No attempt at biography is made, so the imaginative production has full rein in bringing in songs and ballet numbers to round out the Andersen fairy tales told by Kaye.”

The Pied Piper


Take a heaping helping of 1960s psychedelic strangeness, stir it into the timeless legend of the Pied Piper, and you’ve got this 1972 drama starring folk troubadour Donovan as the piper, who’s tricked by the unscrupulous Donald Pleasance into exterminating a village’s worth of rats and is then shortchanged on the fee. You know what happens next — the Piper gets even by stealing the village’s children, Donovan performs a few musical numbers, and Dylan humiliates him at a party. (Oh, wait — wrong movie.) Generally speaking, critics weren’t as entranced by The Pied Piper as the kids in the movie, but it earned nods of approval from a few scribes — including J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, who called it “A dark and smoky affair that, although set in Germany during the Black Death summer of 1349, suggests something brainstormed in a St. Marks Place head shop.”



Like plenty of other Oscar-winning actors, Roberto Benigni used the clout he earned with his awards (Best Actor and Best Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful) to help get his passion project made. And it had plenty of potential, too — Carlo Callodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio is a classic book, but the character has become more closely identified with its somewhat bowdlerized Disney counterpart, and Benigni could have channeled his love for the book into a more faithful film. Alas, he chose instead to create one of the strangest (and vaguely creepiest) family movies of the 21st century, starring Benigni himself (who also directed and co-wrote the script) as the impish wooden boy. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the international version of Pinocchio did fairly well, but in the States, the English overdubs only compounded the overall weirdness of what unfolded on the screen. As an incredulous Edward Guthmann asked for the San Francisco Chronicle: “What can one say about a balding 50-year-old actor playing an innocent boy carved from a log?”



Strictly speaking, the Shrek franchise was inspired by the classic William Stieg children’s book from which it takes its name — but along the way, the four Shrek films (plus their Puss in Boots spinoff) have gotten a lot of mileage out of lampooning fairy tales. From the first film, which featured a heroic ogre and a princess who knew kung fu — not to mention comedic cameos from Pinocchio, the Gingerbread Man, the Three Little Pigs, and many others — the Shrek series has offered critically approved (and wildly commercially successful) proof that there’s still plenty of creative life left in the stories we all know by heart. They are, as CNN’s Paul Tatara wrote of the first film, “A heck of a lot of fun — even if you don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Sydney White


Put Snow White on a modern college campus and substitute a gaggle of social outcasts for the seven dwarves, and you’ve got 2007’s Sydney White, an Amanda Bynes rom-com about an adorably perky freshman who runs afoul of a popular girl on campus and ends up befriending seven unpopular kids. Along the way, she unwittingly infuriates her nemesis with her widely acknowledged beauty, suffering the effects of an infected Apple (computer) for her transgression before being kissed by…well, you know the story. In spite of Bynes’ charms and the aforementioned clever modern parallels, Sydney struck out with audiences as well as most critics — although it proved a pleasant diversion for Laura Kern of the New York Times, who argued, “Ms. Bynes, with her cherubic face, expressive eyes and comic timing, helps create a positive, pleasing diversion that caters to the geek in all of us.”

tom thumb


Starring Russ Tamblyn in the title role, this 1958 production put a whimsical (and appropriately special effects-heavy) spin on the tale of a diminutive lad who always seems to be getting himself out of one horrible jam after another. With a stellar supporting cast that included Alan Young and Peter Sellers, soundtrack assistance from Peggy Lee, and direction from FX wiz George Pal, tom thumb turned a handsome profit at the box office, earned an Academy Award for Special Effects, and earned praise from a number of critics — including the folks at Film4, who called it “one of the most memorable and beloved films directed by special-effects pioneer Pal, with Tamblyn looking bright and fresh-faced as the diminutive fairytale hero.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Snow White and the Huntsman.


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