Writers' Note: Once Upon a Time
Susanna Clarke once said, "fairie is never as far away as you think." This month, the BFBs channeled that mindset by picking their favorite movie inspired by a fairytale. Whether it's a gritty retelling, a sumptuous romance or a classic fable with updated elements, there's a lot of whimsy out there to choose from. From Cinderella to the Greek gods, read on to see what the writers picked as their favorite bits of filmed folklore.
You don’t find Ever After (1998); Ever After finds you. When you’re eight, surfing cable channels, just trying to find a movie to pass the time – inadvertently, you will find a movie that will become an instant comfort watch.
The film is a Cinderella retelling, but it isn’t set in some faraway, unnamed kingdom. And there isn’t magic stirring in the air, waiting to be found. In fact, the movie is set up as if it were the true story of Cinderella, who was really a French orphan named Danielle de Barbarac. Events unfold during the Renaissance, referencing indentured servitude, the royalty of the time, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas More’s “Utopia.” One couldn’t call this a historically accurate film, but Ever After still leans into its historical genre and has a stronger sense of realism than other adaptations.
There are even more changes to the original tale that make Ever After a refreshing, authentic watch — notably, the characterization and growth of the prince. Prince Henry, though still handsome and charming, starts off as a privileged brat rather than a night in shining armor. Through his interactions with Danielle (they meet before the ball in this version), his worldview is challenged to see how he has the responsibility to govern and benefit his poor and uneducated subjects.
Danielle’s hot-button takes are the most obvious anachronism in Ever After, but they complement the original fairytale well. The '90s feminist ideals of liberation directly translate to the story of a girl forced into servitude, living in a world with no hope of social mobility. When Danielle marries Prince Henry, the audience is happy not only for the triumph of true love but the hope that France may also be a better country because of her. Ever After promises that even without a fairy godmother, perseverance and a good heart can still lead you to freedom. And if you give in and turn off your brain enough (like I do), you can convince yourself that Danielle’s happily ever after truly took place.
After a long day, I like to reward myself by watching Hercules (Or is it “Hunkules?”). Hercules is the best fairy tale adaptation – in this case mythology adaptation – because it’s familiar, epic, and appeals to everyone. Not only does it make me feel nostalgic, but it has a solid story to follow. Hercules is also by far my favorite Disney movie.
I’ve never been into Greek mythology and the extent to what I know is limited to this movie. Because Hercules was made for kids, I don’t have to pay very close attention to every detail. I already know that there's going to be a happy ending, and I don’t have to think too hard about who the villain is because they make it pretty obvious with the animation. Hades is the scariest of all the Disney villains and you can’t convince me otherwise.
The Ancient Greek outfits go hard and Disney really came through with the arguably catchiest soundtrack ever made (thanks to the ever-so-based Alan Menken). Seriously, “I Can Go the Distance” and “The Gospel Truth” are incredible. If style and good music is not a recipe for good filmmaking, I don’t know what is. Also, Danny DeVito voices a satyr, a Greek woodland god that I thought was a goat this entire time, so I can’t ask for much else. Just thinking about it gets me excited. I may just have to go watch it again.
There are some straightlaced adaptations, some nostalgic Disney movies and plenty of peculiar international retellings available to select for this genre, but fairytales, and the story of Cinderella in particular, have always felt very well-adapted in the teen movie genre (perhaps because the characters tend to be teenagers themselves). Cinderella, in particular, was explored a miraculous amount of times in my 2000s childhood.
There was the one with Selena Gomez and the concerning Drew Seeley age gap (Another Cinderella Story), the one with Lucy Hale that always played on ABC Family (A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song), the absolute banger that ends with Anne Hathaway singing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (the more concretely fantastical Ella Enchanted, but nonetheless a staple to watch on my neighbor’s mini-pink TV…)
But the one I’ve watched the most times, and the one that could get me through anything as a child, is the Hilary Duff – Chad Michael Murray version, A Cinderella Story (2004). Do you know that circulating meme of Hilary Duff typing “laugh out loud” on her little pink flip phone? That’s from this movie. Those Jennifer Coolidge quotes talking about salmon and botox and poor people? From this movie. Regina King as a realistic fairy godmother? I could go on.
It’s littered with clichés, from Duff’s character Sam wanting to go to Princeton because her dad tells her “it’s where the princesses go." Then he immediately dies in an earthquake. Ok, maybe that’s not cliché, but the fact that they have a flashback to him dying in an earthquake in THEIR OWN HOME is a wild choice. The Princeton part, though – classic. It’s also great that the reason that Sam and total football hottie Austin Ames know each other’s personalities but not their identities is through an anonymous online chatroom. 2004 was a simpler time.
If I run through the rest: the evil stepsisters are weirdos and Sam’s best friend is a “method actor” who was one of the few straight platonic male friends of the genre. Sam is seen as “not like other girls” because she likes to eat cheeseburgers. Jennifer Coolidge steals most of her scenes as the wicked stepmother and it's very funny that her inheritance investment from her ex-husband is a tacky ‘50s roller rink diner that Sam perpetually has man 24/7. Austin says “it’s not my dream, Dad, it’s yours” after his cruel father tells him to go to USC instead of Princeton. The nerve! Also, there is a drought going on, so Sam tells Austin, in the climatic moment, that “waiting for you is like waiting for rain in this drought. Hopeless and disappointing.” Then, when they get back together, it rains. I mean, cinema!
I don’t have any profound, analytic reason to call this movie “the best” of the genre. It is simply quotable comfort food featuring two of the biggest heartthrobs of the era. It’s the sleepover-friendly, PG movie that I frequented in middle school because it was both familiar and slightly ridiculous. As far as I’m concerned, no teen fairytale adaptation has yet to do it better.
A phrase that wouldn’t matter if this movie weren’t such a gem: spoilers below for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
“Favorite movie(s)” is a puzzling question for me. The truth is that I have hundreds of favorite movies – if I have a memorably positive experience and respond emotionally or intellectually it makes the list. Choosing a movie as my favorite fairy tale adaptation might be inspired by a recent experience, but I have a feeling this one will stay with me forever because I already bought the Blu-Ray: my choice is Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022).
Some of the credit for the translation of fairy tale characters within The Last Wish should go to the franchise godfather, Shrek (2001), of which Puss in Boots (2011) and this sequel are spinoffs. Conflict in the original Shrek comes from a royal order to have all fairy tale creatures captured and rounded up, effectively making the title ogre, a talking donkey, Pinocchio, the gingerbread man, the three blind mice, and countless more outlaws. This drives the main drama and offers the filmmakers an opportunity to showcase as many fairy tale easter eggs as they can think up.
The Last Wish follows the Shrek legacy by offering a fresh version of each fairy tale character it employs and making them all hilarious (Baby Bear and Ethical Bug might win the prize for funniest), but this is where the similarity ends and TLW – rather than simply breathing new life into the franchise – takes on a dynamic life of its own. Instead of excuses for comic vignettes, the fairy tale elements that appear in TLW each have a function within the plot and each comes with their own well-executed arcs.
The villainous Jack Horner (John Mulaney) hails from a nursery rhyme – although, as the movie quips, not the most popular one – and he has a guard of henchmen called the Baker’s Dozen. Pinocchio’s conscience (in this movie credited as “Ethical Bug,” although the mid-twentieth century everyman appearance and the voice work by Kevin McCann make me call him Jiminy Stewart) spends the movie on the impossible but hilarious task of breaking through to Horner’s better nature.
Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Olivia Coleman as Mama, Ray Winstone as Papa, and Samson Kayo as Baby) show up on the hunt for Puss in Boots as bounty hunters and end up with one of the strongest emotional arcs in the film consistent with their fairy tale origin. Puss himself (Antonio Banderas) finds his fairy tale origins in the sixteenth century, while his companions Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek) and Perrito (Harvey Guillén) function well in the fairy-verse but are modern originals.
The real show-stealer, and the reason TLW is my uncontested favorite fairy tale adaptation, is Death (Wagner Moura) as a large Wolf. The personification of Death dates all the way from the ancient Greek legend of Thanatos, and has been accomplished memorably several times in film (from The Seventh Seal  to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey ). Puss’ central motivator in the film is that he is on his last life. His other eight have ended in wanton disregard (in one he got drunk and fell off a building, how’s that for a children’s movie?)
Death takes it as a personal insult that this cat arrogantly dismisses his lives – and, by association, deaths. He intends to end Puss’ life for good. Puss is shaken to his core (and, due to all the scariest tricks in cinematic animation, so is the audience) and flees to his last desperate hope, the Wishing Star. It’s at the Star that Puss finally chooses to stand and face Death, rather than run, after he has bonded with his friends and faced all the trials of his hero’s journey (in the Campbellian sense).
It is Death that takes TLW from a fun animated movie to a piece of cinematic art. Whenever a story chooses to personify Death, it becomes a contemplation of the most common human destiny. In the end, taking pointers from Perrito and Kitty, Puss realizes that there is only one life he is guaranteed. Ultimately the fact that it will end is less an enemy to be feared and more a promise to be embraced. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish offers a deeper philosophical dive than many other movies, whether animated or not, and like its fairy-tale ancestors makes a genuine human ethical conundrum understandable and engaging. It might not just be my favorite fairy tale adaptation – it might be my favorite fairy tale.
-Grace, Sophie, Lydia & Josh