Once upon a time there existed a cinematic landscape where not every feature-length fairy tale movie was drawn from a classic story, and the descriptor “fractured fairy tale” didn’t just mean gross-out humor and a Scottish-accented Mike Myers playing a big green ogre. While some of those films have certainly succeeded (this writer has a soft spot for the first “Shrek”), the kind of tale that the likes of the Brothers Grimm would collect in their oeuvre of beloved folklore was often of the darker-hued variety – pitting characters in bleak struggles that would see them rise from the ashes as better individuals for it in the end. Yes, the stories were simple, but they also served as a basis for many of the storytelling tropes that are used today – and may have influenced a few of our own moral compasses, with the fables acting as parables for life's lessons.
With the beautiful but otherwise disappointing "Snow White and the Huntsman" in theaters tomorrow, we've rounded up five original cinematic fairy tales from the darker side of the scale that are worth tracking down, and that still stand as some of the most exciting examples of the sub-genre. These films take some familiar aspects of the fairy tale story into bold and exciting new places, creating works that are both memorable and timeless. Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
“La Belle et le La Bete” (1946)
Opening with a chalkboard scrawl that asks viewers of filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film “La Belle et La Bete” (“Beauty and the Beast”) to give up their ideas of what is real, and give into the imagination and ridiculous nature of fantasy, the director kicks off his very own fractured fairy tale in a post-modern (and admittedly humorous) fashion. Many of us know the story of “Beauty and the Beast” well, but in this particular instance Belle is held captive by the selfish and angry beast to a much more intense degree than in later iterations of the same story. The film begins with a family in ruin, with a group of siblings consisting of Adélaïde, Belle, Félicie and Ludovic, who were once used to living a lavish lifestyle prior to their father's merchant ships being lost at sea. Adélaïde and Félicie continue to squander away the family earnings, all while Belle slaves around the house in order to maintain some sort of stability within the family. When her father must cross the treacherous forest one dark and stormy evening, he finds himself lost and seeking refuge in the house of a long-haired beast. When he attempts to steal a rose from the seemingly empty house, the resident beast gives him one of two options for retribution for theft of the rose: his own death, or that of one of his daughters. Belle sacrifices herself to the beast after learning of her father’s predicament, only to learn that the beast isn’t so much a monster as an individual seeking love. It’s a dark but emotional tale, showing the lengths to which an individual with a kind heart will go to protect one’s family. Cocteau’s film still resonates today, even if the sweet 1994 Disney musical version of the tale is worth a watch as well, it's Cocteau's that balances the fantasy with the parable; never losing site of either for long. It's also a visual wonder, with many flourishes that are still breathtaking today -- the hallway with human arms holding candelabras is a standout -- and it’s easy to see the seeds of Cocteau’s film in any of the following selections. Guillermo del Toro and Christophe Gans, who are both planning their own takes on the story, have a lot to live up to.
“The Dark Crystal” (1982)
While its production history may be long and winding, co-directors and puppeteer wunderkinds Jim Henson and Frank Oz delivered a fantasy epic for the ages in “The Dark Crystal.” The story follows Jen -- hailing from the otherworldly species of the Gelfling – who has embarked upon a quest to secure a magical crystal which will restore peace to his world that has become shrouded in the darkness of a race of vulture-like creatures known as the Skeksis. While we’d love to wax on about the parables and moral allegories found within the subtext of “The Dark Crystal,” the real joy here is in watching Henson, Oz, and their miraculous team of puppeteers bring life to illustrator Brian Froud’s unparalleled designs. Featuring groundbreaking effects even by today’s standards, “The Dark Crystal” served as the first all-animatronics-and-puppet film, and honestly we can only think of a few that have come since. Though thanks to some darker subject matter courtesy of a story conceived by Henson and brought to life by frequent “The Muppet Show” scribe David Odell, the film that was marketed as a family romp never really made waves at the box office, but if you’ve perused through any comic stores or attended any cult movie conventions you’ll notice that it’s taken on a life all its own since. Attempts were made recently to resurrect Henson’s vision in a sequel by The Speirig Brothers, the helmers of vampire flick “Daybreakers,” but those plans seemed to go south, and besides, “The Dark Crystal” really serves as a singular vision from one of our most gifted storytellers as is. While some aspects don’t necessarily stand the test of time (that opening narration), the terrifying nature of the Skeksis and the hero’s journey of young Jen are all better left encased within the disc of your special edition DVDs.