Moviemakers have raided classic fairy tales for plots at least as early as the 1902 Méliès production of Bluebeard. As familiar lore, fairy tales have instant recognition from audiences, and (better yet from a movie studio’s standpoint) no active copyrights about which to worry. No one saw the potential clearer than Walt Disney. While still based in Kansas City, he scored a success with Puss in Boots (1922). After the move to Hollywood, his color and sound shorts quickly became part of the culture; to this day nearly all Americans (and millions of others) know the Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf song, even if most have forgotten it is from The Three Little Pigs (1933). Walt really hit his stride with the feature-length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which set the formula for animation that the studio follow would follow for the rest of his life, and well after his death in 1966.
The Disney formula for adapting fairy tales was a winning one with enduring appeal, but it prompted jokes and spoofs right from the start. In a playful twist on Snow White, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941) plays a very unvirginal showgirl and gangster’s moll named “Sugarpuss” who hides out in a university house with seven unworldly professors where she gains the attention of a bumbling (but sort-of princely) Gary Cooper. The Disney formula also prompted social criticism, which continues today. Commentators frequently object to Disney’s sanitization of the source material, much of which is extraordinarily dark. It is true that the tales as written or collected by Perrault, Grimm, Andersen, and others frequently revel in revenge and feature unwholesome characters who reap unearned rewards. In the Grimm version of Cinderella, pigeons peck out the eyes of the stepsisters. At the end of Snow White, Snow and the prince force the Evil Queen to dance in red hot iron shoes until she dies. In Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty), the prince doesn’t awaken anybody; he is just an opportunist who shows up at the moment the curse has run its 100 year course and moves in on a good thing. In Andersen’s Little Mermaid, love doesn’t prevail; the mermaid commits suicide. Pinocchio is hanged for his crimes. The sexual metaphor in Red Riding Hood is unsubtle and unmistakably intentional; Sondheim and Lapine in their stage musical Into the Woods (clip below) got this exactly right. I’ll return to Into the Woods in a moment, since it prompted this blog.
Disney also catches heat for the traditional values intrinsic in his films and for unassertive female characters. Some of this criticism is unfair. The early animated Disney women are not doormats. They have strong personalities and desires, especially as villains but also as heroines. Even Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), the most passive of the bunch, is an impossible-to-please teenager: when told she is a princess (a pretty cool job by most standards), she throws a tantrum because this will interfere with the plans she already made for a date. Nor is the prince in that movie especially competent – arguably he is just a pretty face. Maleficent captures him easily, and he has to be rescued by the three (female) fairies; the only reason he then is able to prevail against the dragon is that the fairies once again intervene by giving him a magic shield and sword. Nonetheless, it is true that the pre-1966 films embody the traditional and wholesome values that Walt himself had and that, for the most part, audiences of the time wanted to see.
It’s hard to argue with those who complain that the Disney mantra of “love conquers all” is saccharine enough to cause diabetes, and that Walt’s fairy tale endings have saddled two or three generations with unrealistic expectations. I’ve made that argument myself, usually after an encounter with someone who is unhappy with what appears from the outside to be a marvelous and prosperous life – marvelous, that is, except when compared to Disney lives. Such encounters are pretty common. After one in 2007 I wrote (in a Myspace blog), “The realities of mortgages, working-on-our-relationships, and daily stresses are bound to come up short by comparison.” Still, any failure to distinguish on-screen fantasy fulfillment from reality is surely our fault more than Walt’s.
In the late 20th century, Disney fairy tale heroines became physically and verbally more combative, but otherwise the studio stuck with Walt’s basic formula. In other studios and among independent producers, however, things were changing to suit a more cynical and disillusioned era, as in Snow White, a Tale of Terror (1997). Interpretations of fairy tales grew even darker in the 21st century with films like Red Riding Hood (2011) and the bizarre fairy tale sequel Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). The films grew increasingly dismissive about the whole notion of romantic love, never mind suggesting it might conquer anything. Disney resisted the trend for a time – Tangled (2010), Disney’s take on Rapunzel, despite a bad boy thief in lieu of a prince, is very much in the classic formula – but lately has followed suit. Princes and would-be beaus turn out to be villains or useless in Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014); in the latter, the nonexistence of “true love” in the romantic sense is an important plot point.
Fairy tales inevitably are reinterpreted in ways that reflect the current time. My guess, accordingly, is that they’ll get even darker, at least for a while. However, despite the recent nods to the public mood, Disney still has limits, and they are unsurprising ones. Word has gotten out that the studio’s feature film version of Into the Woods, now in pre-production, alters some unwholesome features of the stage production, e.g. the adultery of the baker’s wife and the sexual references in the Red Riding Hood segment. Sondheim, in his comments on the matter, sounds more resigned to the changes than upset by them. So, prudery has survived (at least in some contexts) even if romance hasn’t. There was a time in my youth when most of us expected that it would be the other way around by now – long before now. Well, my generation has had its turn calling the shots, so I suppose we’re the ones who altered the plan.
I’ve no movie plans tonight, but I’ve set aside Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner for reading; among the endorsements on the back cover is one by Bill Clinton, of all people. Glancing ahead, I see that in this version Red Riding Hood stops the woodcutter from killing the wolf: “How dare you assume that womyn and wolves can't solve their own problems without a man's help!" She, the wolf, and grandma (who rescues herself from the wolf’s belly) then chop off the woodcutter’s head and set up an alternative household. Looks like great stuff. I can’t wait to see what happens to The Duckling that Was Judged on its Personal Merits and Not on its Appearance.
Into the Woods: Red Riding Hood reflects on her experience