Fairy-tales: So, do you think you're fair enough?

Fairy-tale films aren't for little girls any longer, with their explicit battles for sexual power. Matilda Battersby looks into a darker mirror

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, fairy-tale movies were for little girls. Disney made saccharine, smooth-edged versions of the twisted tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, conjuring princesses of Barbie-like beauty who were saved from dragons and witches by sexless princes.

But then the big, bad executives got together, did some statistical hocus pocus, and realised that little girls didn't have much money to spend in the cinema. Disney declared in 2010 that Tangled, its take on Rapunzel, would be its last fairy-tale movie. It was responding to the limited success of its animation The Princess and the Frog (a take on the Grimms' "The Frog Prince"), compared with the huge box-office impact of tween franchises Twilight and Harry Potter. It signalled a massive change for Disney, which had been making fairy-tale movies since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who oversees Disney Animation, said: "Films and genres do run a course. They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it... but we don't have any other musicals or fairy-tales lined up."

But other movie studios still saw the potential. The monopoly was up for grabs. Film-makers had a bunch of ready-made, much-loved stories (rights-free!) there to be plundered for another audience: teenagers and young adults. Cue statuesque heroines of doe-eyed beauty, bursting corsets, rough-and-ready Prince Charmings and as much innuendo as you can shake a magic stick at. With the arrival of three new takes on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", last year's re-imagining of "Little Red Riding Hood", two re-tellings of "Sleeping Beauty" and impending versions of "Jack the Giant Killer", "Cinderella" and "The Snow Queen", it is clear that the genre has been gobbled up by action and adventure.

If the two most recent releases, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, (both "re-imaginings" of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") are anything to go by, movie studios seem to want to catch their audiences by pitting long-standing hot Hollywood property against some of its dewiest new faces – in Mirror Mirror's case a flame-haired Julia Roberts to the innocently blinking Lily Collins, while in Snow White and the Huntsman the brilliant Charlize Theron competes as queen with a surly action-adventurer Kristen Stewart as Snow White. The slightly ageing Hollywood sirens versus the little-known teenage beauties (or in Stewart's case, the well-known stuff of tween fantasy) seems to be an attempt to inject sizzle by having a real contest for "fairest in the land".

Mirror Mirror carries a PG rating, but Snow White and the Huntsman is rated12A, largely because it contains suggestions of sexual abuse, addiction, and bloody violence. Casting Stewart clearly shows the film-makers' desire to catch at the Twilight franchise's glory. In the film she (spoiler alert!) receives a first kiss from an alcoholic hunter with facial hair to rival Bob Geldof's. Notably, it is the grizzled outsider and not the fresh-faced Disney-style prince who wins the day.

While sexing up fairy-tales might not always work, it's interesting to explore a more adult take on them. Even the sanitised Disney versions hint at sexual power when portraying baddies: the sea monster Ursula in The Little Mermaid has huge breasts and a provocative red mouth; Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty wears a hat with crooked horns, a symbol for sexual deviancy; in Snow White the evil queen's sexuality is the source of her power because she used her beauty to trick the king into marrying her.

It is two centuries this year since the Brothers Grimm published the first volumes of their collected folk tales for children. That we suddenly have an increased appetite for them is because of the new fiction that draws from these tales, of which The Hunger Games is the latest example. Disney recognises this too.A version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" has been picked up again by Disney after languishing for a decade and is set for release next year.

Disney has also taken a lead from the recent glut of fairy-tale films. A live-action reinterpretation of "Sleeping Beauty", told from Maleficent's standpoint, is currently in pre-production. Former Tomb Raider Angelina Jolie will play the lead (against dewy newcomer Elle Fanning's Princess Aurora) directed by Robert Stromberg.

The main problem with fairy-tale films is that the studios "re-imagine" them, and come up with some very odd plot twists. In 2011 film Red Riding Hood, Amanda Seyfried's heroine had to escape a werewolf rather than a wolf. Jack the Giant Killer is out next year. The film-makers have amended the storyline to include an army of giants – and the evil beanstalk will run off with the fair maid.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, set for release in 2013, is possibly the most ridiculous. In it the siblings become "a formidable team of bounty hunters who track witches around the world". Even TV is getting in on the act, with Grimm and Once Upon a Time playing out fairy-tales with a mega-dollop of artistic licence in small-town, crime-drama settings. Who knows what creative monsters are yet to be unleashed.