The Shape of Water (2017)

2018 #256
Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

The Shape of Water

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
13 nominations — 4 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

Dreaming

Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

Toxic masculinity

So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

Something fishy goin' on

But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

5 out of 5

The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Cinderella (2015)

2016 #43
Kenneth Branagh | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | U / PG

Disney’s animated classic is re-imagined in live-action, losing the songs but expanding the story. The latter serves to find a little more realism in the setup (how Cinders became a servant to her stepmother, etc), as well as in the characters’ motivations and actions.

Cate Blanchett excels (as ever) as the evil stepmother, and Lily James sells Ella’s perfectness as delightful rather than irritating. It’s kinda odd to see Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a clean-cut Prince, though.

Branagh brings requisite class and gloss for a remake that, while not a classic like the original, is a worthy revisioning.

4 out of 5

The Golem (1920)

aka The Golem: How He Came into the World / Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

2015 #163
Carl Boese & Paul Wegener | 85 mins | streaming | 4:3 | Germany / silent (English) | PG

The word “prequel” was first coined in the ’50s, arguably entered the mainstream in the ’70s, and was firmly established as a term everyone knew and used in the ’90s by the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Works that can be defined as prequels predate their naming, however, and surely one of the earliest examples in the movies must be this silent German horror.

Now lost, 1915’s Der Golem was set in the present day, when “an antiques dealer (Henrik Galeen) finds a golem (Paul Wegener), a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi four centuries earlier. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders.” The film was written and directed by both Galeen and Wegener, but the latter was reportedly unhappy with the film due to compromises he’d made during production. So, after a sequel (also lost), Wegener tried to more directly convey the legend as he’d first heard it — hence Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, translated as The Golem: How He Came into the World, and commonly abbreviated to just The Golem, what with the original The Golem being lost. (Got it? Good.)

Set in 16th Century Prague (not that there’s any way to know that from the film itself), The Golem 3 tells the story of that rabbi who brought the clay statue to life in the first place. When the Roman Emperor decrees that Jews must vacate their ghetto, a rabbi builds a monster out of clay then summons a spirit to bring it to life. Meanwhile, one of the Emperor’s knights has fallen in love with the rabbi’s daughter, who is also the object of the rabbi’s assistant’s affections, and this love triangle — combined with access to control of the Golem — will eventually spell “climax”.

Regarded as one of the first horror films, The Golem is more of a moderately-dark fantasy, or a fairytale-type myth. There are clear similarities to Frankenstein, though I don’t know if either influenced the other. However, it does feature what I presume is one of first instances of that most daft of horror tropes: running upstairs to escape the monster. It goes as well here as it ever does, i.e. not very. Said monster looks a bit comical by today’s standards. Built by the rabbi to defend the Jewish people, he immediately uses the hulking chap to chop wood and run errands — he doesn’t want a defender, he wants a servant! A terrifying beast nonetheless, it’s ultimately defeated because it picks up a little girl for a cuddle and she casually removes its magic life-giving amulet.

Golem aside, there are some good special effects, like the ring of fire that summons a smoke-breathing demon; composer Aljoscha Zimmerman’s score is largely atmospheric; and there are some nice shots, like when the rabbi walks up to camera, does something with his hands (in what is effectively now a close-up), then walks back to the Golem at the rear of the set. These are the exception, though: it’s mostly a mix of flat long and medium shots. Oddly, the credits on the version currently available note that it adds computer graphics and animation. Presumably this is the English text that’s been digitally pasted into the film on letters, decrees, books, and the like. It also means that the judder, grain, and print damage on the English intertitles is utterly fake. How silly.

Revered for its place in film history, The Golem has elements to commend it still, but doesn’t hold up as well as other films of the era.

3 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

2015 #32
Bryan Singer | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack the Giant SlayerThe influence of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings rumbles on with this attempt by director Bryan Singer to turn the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk into a fantasy epic.

In a plot that over-complicates the original tale to bulk up the running time, farm-boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy, Skins, the current X-Men prequels, etc) is entrusted with some ancient magic beans, which he accidentally drops and from them grow sky-high beanstalks. Unfortunately, the kingdom’s runaway princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, now known for Poldark) is with him at the time, and ends up at the top, kidnapped by giants. The king (Ian McShane, who I imagine is still Lovejoy to many) commands the head of the palace guard (Ewan McGregor) to lead a team up the beanstalk to rescue her, taking Jack along because… his name’s in the title? I forget. Anyway, they meet some computer-generated giants (the leader voiced by Bill Nighy, because of course), action sequences ensue, etc.

Despite being a moderately-starry big-budget Hollywood effort, Jack the Giant Slayer feels cheap as chips across the board. For starters there’s the woeful screenplay, with its first-draft-level dialogue and poor construction. We’re given little reason to care for quickly-sketched characters or the mission they set out on. The first act is rushed through, then unbalanced by an over-long and over-the-top climax. The quality cast ham it up, probably due to the under-written and over-familiar character types they have to work with.

Jack and the beanstalkA computer-animated prologue wants to be the one from Hellboy II, or the interlude from Deathly Hallows Part 1, but instead just looks like something from a ’90s kids’ CG TV series (think ReBoot, that kind of thing). The main film’s effects are little better — if you told me any of the CG-driven sequences were from a Syfy miniseries, I’d probably believe you.

Naturally the climax leans on these, for an epic-fantasy-wannabe giant invasion. The film would be so much better without this forced attempt to provide an epic battle — focus in on the quest to rescue the princess, which is the main story anyway, then end the movie with the beanstalk coming down and everyone returning home. Leave the giants up in their kingdom, leave the door open for a sequel — every studio exec loves the hope of a sequel, right? (I don’t think there should be a sequel, but that’s how you sell it.)

As a children’s movie, Jack the Giant Slayer would be passable. It should by all rights be a PG, but for some reason (well, for box office) it’s been pushed a little far (only a little far, mind) and insists on being considered as a 12A/PG-13. In that playing field, it’s not up to snuff. I don’t mean to imply kids only need or deserve sub-par entertainment — that’s certainly not true — but, for younger children especially, well-worn plots, They might be giantsoveracted characters, and bright-and-cheerful CGI are more or less acceptable, in a “it’s no classic but it’ll pass two hours just fine” kind of way. Produced on those kinds of terms, this might have passed muster for some. Might.

I didn’t enjoy Jack the Giant Slayer at all. I think I’ve given it a second star only because I like everyone involved and they have my sympathy.

2 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

aka Beauty and the Beast

2014 #104
Jean Cocteau | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | France / French | PG

When it comes to “fairy-tale movies” — if such a genre exists as something other than a profit center for the Disney corporation — there is Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and then there is everything else.

La Belle et la BêteSo states Geoffrey O’Brien in his essay “Dark Magic” (included in the booklet for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of La Belle et la Bête, and available online here). Despite the varied list of titles people have selected to cover for the Fairy Tale Blogathon, I feel it’s a pretty accurate statement — ask most people to name a film based on a fairy tale and they’re going to come out with a Disney; ask a cinephile and I suspect, as a rule, Cocteau’s acclaimed film would come to mind ahead of most others. After all, it’s on a variety of well-regarded best-ever lists, including both the cineastic (TSPDT, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma) and the mainstream (the Empire 500, IMDb Top 50s for Fantasy and 1940s). It’s a film considered almost without peer in its now-animation-dominated sub-genre.

I imagine you know the story — it’s a tale as old as time, after all — but let’s recap anyway: in lieu of her father, Belle (Josette Day) goes to be the ‘guest’ of the animal-like Beast (Jean Marais) in his castle. Initially repulsed by him, Belle comes to realise there’s something there that wasn’t there before as she grows attracted to her captor. Meanwhile, Belle’s would-be suitor (Marais again) resolves to kill the Beast…

As if I haven’t made it explicit enough with my shoehorning of song titles and lyrics, the elephant in the room when discussing La Belle et la Bête today is Disney’s 1991 adaptation of the same story. It may have come 45 years later and I’m sure is less kindly looked upon by cineastes, but there’s no doubting its popularity — and acclaim, in fact, notably being the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Simply put, Cocteau’s film is less accessible than the Disney version. That might sound like it goes without saying, but even allowing for the differences in production style (slick colourful animation with catchy Broadway-style tunes vs. black-and-white French poetic realism), Beast and the Beautyhere the characters’ relationships are more complex and ambiguous, particularly at the climax. It isn’t a simple “see the true beauty behind the ugly exterior” moral fable; indeed, if anything, Marais’ Beast is more beautiful than the man he becomes.

There are several reasons for that. One is the visual: Marcel Escoffier’s resplendent costuming, Henri Alekan’s gorgeous cinematography (more on that later), and, primarily, Hagop Arakelian’s make-up. Taking five hours to apply every day, the look of the Beast is in no way a dated ’40s special effect, but a marvellous, expressive, essential part of the character. Nonetheless, as O’Brien notes,

[The Beast says,] “You mustn’t look into my eyes.” It is, of course, his eyes that we look at, glistening from within the multilayered makeup… makeup so expressive that Marais’ real face seems a blank by comparison.

As is alluded to there, it’s not just the stuck-on fur that makes the man a Beast, but Marais’ performance. The eyes may indeed be the window to the soul, for it’s through them that we can see he’s a man underneath the beastly visage. But even in that sphere the character is a man transformed — his manner, his voice, and the steely look that often lies behind those eyes. In her essay named after the film in the BFI’s Gothic – The Dark Heart of Film compendium, Marina Warner summarises the cumulative effect of the numerous filmmaking disciplines that created the character:

[Cocteau] imagined a beast who has no rival for hideous fascination among fairytale beasts before or since: Jean Marais’s growling, slowed, incantatory delivery, his sweeping, elaborately princely magnificence of apparel, his thick pelt curling out exuberantly from his lace collar and fine linen as he springs and lopes, and, above all, his staring pale eyes in the great leonine and brindled mask of his face with the two sharp incisors defining his mouth, has never been matched for erotic power. He captures a perfect and irresistible synthesis of repulsiveness and attractiveness.

Wink wink nudge nudgeThat final idea, of the erotic or sexual in the film, seems a favourite theme for critics: O’Brien reckons “the magic is sexual throughout — a fantastic… sex magic”, and I think we’ll skip Warner’s lengthy discussion of the feelings the film elicits in her. How prevalent such undercurrents are is surely in the eye of the beholder — O’Brien notes that “it is so chaste that no censor could have ever assailed it”, and I suspect many a viewer would feel the same. That said, the soft-lensed scene in which the Beast gently laps water from Belle’s delicately cupped hands may make viewers with a particularly-disposed mind think of certain other acts.

A more defining feature of the film’s depiction of magic, I think, is its groundedness. O’Brien sums it up most succinctly when he says that “if this is magic, it is a shaggy, palpable sort of magic… we sense at each moment that we are caught up in a process governed by laws”. We rarely know what these laws are, in fact, but there’s a sense that there’s some governing order to what occurs, that some things are possible and others not — there’s clearly no love potion to solve the Beast’s problem, for instance. Many uses of magic in the film come with associated “how to use it” guides from one character or another; not presented in some kind of deconstructionist technical-manual style, but neither are they a hand-wavy “it’ll do whatever we need it to when we need it to”. To quote O’Brien again:

Cocteau was able to realize the fantastic not as an escape from the real but as an extension of it… He approaches the paraphernalia of the fairy tale — those enchanted mirrors, keys, gloves — with a technician’s dispassion, no more taken aback by their existence than by the existence of trees or streams or horses or rose gardens.

Smoking hotCocteau was trying to move away from a wishy-washy kind of fantasy — indeed, he says as much in the press book for the film’s US premiere (a piece entitled “Once Upon a Time” and also included in Criterion’s booklet): “To fairyland, as people usually see it, I would bring a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn.” In these respects you could probably draw a line from Cocteau to something like Peter Jackson’s films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where a not-real world with magical qualities is rendered with the precision of historical drama, and even Game of Thrones, which you could certainly mistake for a real-life medieval epic (until the dragons turn up). Cocteau’s vision feels a little more storybook than either of those, but everything’s a step on a journey.

Plus, unlike either of those examples, Cocteau’s film needs to draw a line between the everyday world and the fantastical one. Much as with the Beast, this is achieved with a synthesis of production elements. The farmhouse of Belle’s family is shot on location, providing inescapable realism, and with relatively straightforward photography from Alekan. It’s not that these section are unimaginative, just that they present a world that is ‘normal’. The Beast’s castle, on the other hand, is heightened and expressionistic. Christian Bérard’s production design offers sets with lots of black emptiness in place of floors and walls, with decorations and dressings that shine, gleam and glow in Alekan’s lighting — not to mention the candelabras with self-lighting candles, held by moving arms; or the faces set in the fireplace, whose roving eyes follow the action; or the hand protruding bizarrely from the tabletop, there purely to pour the wine.

HandyIt’s in the Beast’s castle that the most enduring images of the film are played out, most famous among them being Belle’s father’s arrival, with the candles igniting themselves and the hands pointing the way, and Belle’s own arrival, a slow-motion run with billowing dress and curtains — if you haven’t seen the original, you’ve surely seen an advert inspired by it. For all the groundedness Cocteau and co may be bringing to the fantastical, it’s still a strange realm; one rendered with loving beauty in its design and photography, but with an unsettling effect. Right on the money, then.

And if we’re talking about “unsettling beauty”, we’ve surely come back round to the Beast himself, and in particular his role in the ending. You know how that turns out: having been able to see the true goodness beneath the ugly exterior, Belle is rewarded when the Beast is transformed back into a handsome prince. Hurrah — she gets a hubby who is both nice and pretty! But is it such a victory after all? Not if Cocteau gets his way:

My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naïveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage.

Pretty boyGood moral message, but isn’t the “superior” Beast the same fella as Prince Charming? The way a felled Avenant is transformed into the Beast at the same time as Charming is unveiled as a more-perfect duplicate of Avenant (it’s Marais in all three roles, of course) suggests some kind of parallel should be drawn. Warner wonders, “Has the Beast taken on [Avenant’s] appearance because [Belle] admitted to him that she was fond of Avenant?” Could be, but isn’t that a bit simple? She has another theory: “does Cocteau want to suggest that a ne’er-do-well like Avenant can also be transformed by love?” Could it be Avenant is about to get a lesson in how to be a better person, as Charming has already endured?

These are all attempts to find a positive reading of the ending, I think — one where love conquers all, and what it hasn’t conquered is a mission for the future. O’Brien is a bit more pessimistic, concluding the film is “a story more full of suffering than of wish fulfillment”. Oh dear. He believes that “even as Belle and her prince (the Beast transformed into the double of the unreliable Avenant) soar in the sky, she seems already to realize that this is not exactly what she wanted.” It’s certainly true that every character in the film goes through some misery, be it small (Belle’s sisters being snubbed from social engagements) or big (the family’s destitution), and by the end very few of these are resolved. If Belle thought she was getting an honourable Beast and instead has to suffer a preened Avenant for her foreseeable future, then she’s lost out too. Indeed, the only one who got what he wanted was the Beast: transformed back into a man, and with a lovely new wife to boot.

Beauty and the BeastThere’s a cheery message to end on. But then, this is “a fairytale for grownups” — a quote from Warner, but, to an extent, it would seem Cocteau agreed (by implication, with his statement at the start of the film urging the audience to embrace child-like acceptance of the story they are about to see) — and the resolutions of grownup stories are rarely “happy ever after”.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fascinating articles collated at Movies Silently, including my review of fairytale-inspired miniseries The 10th Kingdom.

The 10th Kingdom (2000)

2014 #104a
David Carson & Herbert Wise | 416 mins* | DVD | 4:3 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15**

The 10th KingdomCreated by British screenwriter Simon Moore (writer of Traffik, the Channel 4 miniseries that went on to inspire Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film, and the first Dinotopia miniseries, which could not-too-inaccurately be described as “The 10th Kingdom with dinosaurs”), The 10th Kingdom is a miniseries that I seem to remember Sky made quite a fuss about when they aired it over here, nearly 15 years ago. Sadly it flopped on NBC in its native America, so we haven’t been treated to the mooted sequel(s), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating now: unlike the abundance of Lost-inspired rolling TV narratives that are ruined when (almost inevitably) they’re cut short, The 10th Kingdom tells a complete self-contained story.

Said story takes place in both present-day (well, turn-of-the-millennium) New York and the fantasy world of the Nine Kingdoms — unlike the depiction in the title sequence, New York doesn’t mutate into a fantasy kingdom. Although it may not be storyline-accurate, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s one of the greatest title sequences of all time. In just a couple of minutes it conveys the style and theme of the show with effective, striking imagery. OK, the CGI is a little dated now, looking kinda rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad that it diminishes the sequence’s impact. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design, and it was well deserved.

ManhattanitesAnyway, the Nine Kingdoms is the place all our fairytales come from — the part of the narrative set there takes place “almost 200 years” after the “Golden Age”, when the events we know from stories actually happened. We’re led into this world by Virginia (Kimberly Williams) and her dad, Tony (John Larroquette), after indolent monarch-to-be Prince Wendell (Daniel Lapaine) flees to our world while escaping the Evil Queen (Dianne Wiest) and winds up taking the two New Yorkers back to his world. Along with Wolf (Scott Cohen), a chap with animalistic tendencies, the quartet try to stop the Evil Queen’s evil machinations.

So it’s a quest narrative, the staple of fantasy storytelling; but, in this case, that allows Moore to explore a fair chunk of the world he’s created. It goes about that at its own, somewhat literary, speed. Published alongside the miniseries’ airing was an epically-sized novelisation by Kathryn Wesley (a pen name for couple Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith), which is how I first got into the programme. Unlike the innumerable sub-par novelisations published in the history of moviedom, this one was very good (and well-reviewed, if I recall, so it’s not just me). It’s ironic to me, then, that the series itself feels like a page-for-page adaptation of a novel. It’s something to do with the pace and style — the amount of time it’s prepared to devote to certain scenes or story elements, the way big twists and developments aren’t perfectly timed for episode endings (for example, our Manhattanite heroes enter the Nine Kingdoms just before the one hour mark — right in the middle of the first episode as originally aired, somewhere early in episode two of the ten-part version). Mummy dearestIt also means the way it’s been edited into one long movie on DVD feels quite natural: it’s one long story with arbitrary breaks, not a series of finite episodes. (If you’re thinking, “of course it’s one story, it’s a miniseries”, plenty of single-narrative series and miniseries still function as discrete episodes that build to a whole.)

Like a certain recent TV programme, the Nine Kingdoms is a world stitched together from numerous familiar stories; but, unlike that programme (the less said about which the better, in my opinion), it isn’t a land of po-faced ‘adventure’. Instead, it’s loaded with wry humour — after all, “fairytales are real and all took place in the same place” is a pretty silly concept, so why not mine it for laughs? As one character informs us, “things have gone down hill a bit since [the Golden Age] — happy ever after didn’t last as long as we’d hoped”. Rather than that meaning things are Serious and Troubling (and, based on how Once Upon a Time turned out, inadvertently laughable), things have gone to pot in a way that is amusingly reminiscent of our own world. This is mainly through a witty appropriation of real-world tropes: it begins at Snow White Memorial Prison, for example, with a worldmap that features a large arrow proclaiming “you are imprisoned here”; when some trolls believe they’ve been trapped in a witch’s pocket, they hope that if they behave they’ll be let out after serving only half the spell; later, there’s a cocktail bar that serves “A Long Slow Spell Against the Wall”; and so on (I don’t want to spoil them all!)

Wolf for the chopThis gives the whole thing a heightened comedy tone, emphasised by many of the performances. A gaggle of troll siblings are irritatingly over-played, but Cohen’s meat-obsessed Wolf is a hammy delight (pun very much intended). The entertainment value means we quickly warm to the characters, so that when more perilous aspects of their quest do come into play later on, we care what happens. Plus, like most of the original fairytales (as opposed to Disney-style sanitised re-tellings), there’s the odd darker undercurrent. For instance, you may think the story of Snow White ends with a kiss and “happily ever after”, but here we’re told how the stepmother who poisoned Snow White was made to wear fire-heated iron shoes and ‘dance’ at the wedding until her feet were burnt raw, before being thrown out into the snow. Very dark and grim (and possibly from the original tale, for all I know).

In the main, however, The 10th Kingdom takes fairytales, not for their grimness, but for the chance to subvert, play with, or expand on them. So, for example, when Wolf and Tony come across a woodchopper who’ll tell them what they want to know if only they can guess his name — and if they get it wrong, he’ll chop off one of their heads — Tony signs them up without a second thought: he knows this one. With Wolf’s head on the block, he declares “Rumpelstiltskin!” The woodchopper replies, “wrong!” Uh-oh. This feeds into Tony’s growing annoyance with why people in this world can’t just tell you things, or exchange money for services, but instead always pose riddles — real-world logic clashing with the fairytale tradition. And it has a funny pay-off, too.

My precious...Little details in this vein abound: an apple tree has grown by Snow White’s cottage (don’t eat those apples!); the site of her glass coffin is now a tourist attraction; if you break a mirror, you genuinely get seven years’ bad luck… There’s also a pair of golden shoes that can turn you invisible, but the more you wear them the more you desire to use them all the time — what a precious idea (wink wink nudge nudge). These subversions also manifest in a strain of pleasant practicality; for instance, the abundant magic mirrors aren’t “just there”, but instead have been manufactured by dwarves. It lends the feel of a fully-conceived and rule-bound world, rather than an “anything can happen”, “just because” environment.

Even with all this, there remain a few major fairytales that aren’t touched upon. The Little Mermaid is one; another obvious omission is Beauty and the Beast — except there is a version of that included: the romance between Virginia and Wolf. The comparison isn’t drawn out in the text, particularly as Wolf isn’t an ugly hairy monster (though he does have a tail), but the similarities are there: his first encounter is actually with her father; he pursues Virginia even though the attraction isn’t mutual; she gradually comes around to him; there’s a third-act complication (spoilers!), before they eventually end up together (surprise!) It doesn’t have the same thematic heft as a proper retelling of Beauty and the Beast because it doesn’t have the whole “seeing the true beauty inside” thing — Wolf may give in to his urges once or twice, most notably in a storyline set in a town dominated by the Peep (as in Little Bo) family, where prejudice comes to the fore and Virginia has to defend him, but he’s never a full-on monster. There are elements of the tale’s other subtext, about a woman having power and control (or not) over her future, but, again, not in quite the same way: Wolf is besotted with Virginia and she doesn’t (initially) reciprocate his numerous advances — Animal attractiona world away from being locked in a castle until you change your mind. If this sounds like criticism, it isn’t. I’m not arguing the love story element of the series is unsuccessful — I’m sure it engages plenty of fans as the series’ primary attraction, even — but, on reflection, I’m not sure reading it as a Beauty and the Beast variation is actually that illuminating.

That’s fine, because the value of The 10th Kingdom lies not in how it retells its fairytale inspirations, but how it takes their familiar symbols and tropes and then reconfigures and expands on them, how it follows their implications through with real-world-logic, or mashes them up against the banalities of our world, often to comical effect. It’s a series that requires a basic knowledge of the tales used as its basis — not in an academic way, but in the way most of us have, thanks to exposure through childhood story-time or endless Disney movies. By playing on such ingrained knowledge, the pay-offs can be huge. Put those amusing subversions alongside likeable characters and a story that is at once world-endangering and deeply personal for our heroes, and you have top-drawer entertainment.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fascinating articles collated at Movies Silently, and come back here on Tuesday for my second contribution, a review of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of La Belle et la Bête.


* That’s just under seven hours to you and me. Most DVD releases present that as a non-stop movie, however in the US it was originally aired as five two-hours (which is reportedly how it’s presented on the 2013 DVD re-release), and in other regions (including the UK) as ten one-hours. ^

** Yes, it really is a 15. That must be thanks to some kind of technicality (use of knives, imitable violent techniques, etc), because it feels completely unwarranted. ^

Tangled (2010)

2011 #69
Nathan Greno & Byron Howard | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

TangledDisney’s 50th animated feature is Rapunzel in all but name, for no particularly good reason. It seemed to be met with universal praise on its release last year, critics hailing it as a return to Disney’s previous quality after a run of lacklustre releases, in particular the underwhelming return to 2D in the year before’s The Princess and the Frog.

Well, to get that comparison immediately out of the way, Tangled isn’t as good as The Princess and the Frog in my estimation. I’m not sure why it seems to have been more widely praised — it’s solid and good fun, but I thought Frog had more going for it.

Which isn’t to say Tangled is bad. It’s funny, which is its biggest asset, and exciting at times — as usual, the highly moveable camera of CG animation adds fluidity, speed and excitement to the action sequences, making them one of the high points.

It’s not all good and shiny though. The setting — a comedic-ish fantasy-kingdom world — can come across a bit like lightweight Shrek, lacking the anachronistic postmodern real-world references that made that film zing. Worse, the songs are distinctly unmemorable — I’d forgotten some of them by the time it came to their own reprise. A gang of thugs singing about their dreams is the best thanks to its comedy, but I couldn’t hum or sing any of it for you now. I especially lament the lack of a decent villain’s song, Why not just call it Rapunzel?a number I usually particularly enjoy. It has one, I suppose, but it’s one of the weakest examples I’ve ever heard.

Tangled isn’t bad by any measure, but I don’t feel it should be the praise-magnet it became. There are certainly better Disney musicals — it can’t hold a candle to those; and there are better funny fairytales too — but at least it holds up as a solid addition to that sub-genre.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Tangled is on Disney Cinemagic this Sunday, 23rd October, at 5pm and 9pm.

Enchanted (2007)

2008 #80
Kevin Lima | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

EnchantedYou’ve probably heard about Enchanted: it’s the one that starts out as a traditionally animated Disney film, before The Normal Girl Who Will Marry A Prince is thrown into a Magic Portal by The Evil Stepmother and finds herself in present-day New York. It’s one of those concepts so good it just makes you think, “why haven’t they thought of that before?”

Thankfully, they pull it off. It’s very funny, riffing on many recognisable elements from Disney’s considerable library of classics, and manages to produce a number of catchy songs of its own. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, managing to be infectiously sweet rather than sickeningly sugary, while Susan Sarandon has a whale of a time in her boundlessly camp (though disappointingly small) role. The rest of the cast are good too, especially a wonderfully vacant James Marsden as The Prince.

The plot is ultimately predictable, but no more than you’d expect considering the target audience — certainly, kids will likely go through all the requisite emotions, and it would probably be more disappointing if they did try anything truly shocking. Still, it’s crammed with more than enough fun invention and new ideas to make up for any unsurprising plot beats.

Quite simply, Enchanted is a fantastic concept, beautifully executed. A veritable success.

4 out of 5