With the recent glut of “fairy tale” movies and TV shows “for adults” you’d be forgiven if you were inclined to wash your hands of the entire genre. Somewhere between Twilight-infused Little Red and leather clad Hansel and Gretel I began to lose my faith in Hollywood to do anything interesting with the notion of fable and folklore. And don’t get me started on the overblown, undernuanced “Once Upon A Time” or the only marginally better “Grimm.” That being said, it’s not as if the essence of fairytales and folklore aren’t appropriate subject matter for adults. There’s a reason they were around long before Disney got ahold of them. The following 7 films represent the best “adult” fairy tales in recent memory. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your Disney, but check these out too. Because you’re a f*cking grown-up, that’s why.
Edward Scissorhands (1990): Tim Burton has tried time and time again to recreate the dark, magical spell he spun in Edward Scissorhands. But the mournfully comic tale of an outcast boy (essentially an Ugly Duckling/Pinocchio hybrid) has never been matched. His other attempts at fables (Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, Alice In Wonderland) have gotten exponentially worse over time. While Edward Scissorhands certainly isn’t Burton’s only good movie, it’s arguable his best and a fine example of a fairytale plot that rings true.
Ondine (2009): One of Colin Farrell’s better films, this story of an Irish fisherman who finds a woman in his net whom he believes to be a Selke (water nymph) borrows heavily from the ballet of the same name (which in turn borrow heavily from “The Little Mermaid”/”Melusine”). Though the very best “Selke” film is still The Secret Of Roan Inish, this more mature plot involves addiction, redemption and flirts with the idea of the supernatural without explicitly invoking it.
The Company of Wolves (1984): This is the most “classically” fairytale movie on the list and one of many strong “Little Red Riding Hood” retellings. (See also: Freeway.) Neil Jordan’s messed up take manages to scratch out the snarling, writhing sexual subtext of The Big Bad Wolf without all the stupid trappings that were the downfall of Catherine Hardwick’s more recent attempt.
The Fall (2006): It’s surprising that after the brilliance of The Fall, Tarsem produced the dumb but pretty Immortals and Mirror Mirror. What keeps The Fall from a similar fate are the completely natural (and largely improvised) performances from stars Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru. Their interactions provide an anchor for the candy floss visuals of The Bandit and his companions. And while it’s not all happily ever after, it’s a satisfying journey.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Speaking of unhappy endings, the one in Pan’s Labyrinth is so traumatic that many haven’t gone back for a second viewing. But that’s classic fairytale: the blood in Cinderella’s shoe and the Little Mermaid’s watery grave. The storyline, that of a girl with a cruel step-parent who must perform three tasks/labors to prove her worth, is the stuff countless fairytales are made of. But the shocking violence of the brutally fascist Spain and Del Toro’s stable of gruesome/frightening creatures make this story unsuitable for children. That’s right, Del Toro made it just for you.
Hanna (2011): From the first scenes of Hanna handling a beloved and well-worn volume of fairy stories to the final confrontation in the fictional “Grimm House” and the real, derelict Spreepark in Berlin director Joe Wright made no secret of his fairy tale intentions. In fact, Cate Blanchett’s Marissa Wiegler (part evil step-mother, part big bad wolf) emerges from a giant set of lupine jaws. Too on the (my what a big) nose? Not at all. Hanna, with her long blond hair and bleached eyebrows is part alien child, part princess. Another Pinocchio trying to figure out how to be a real child. Underneath the action thriller veneer Hanna is, like most fairy stories, about growing up and finding your place in the world despite fantastical opposition. If you can make it through puberty, you can make it through anywhere.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012): The closing (non-spoilery) lines of my favorite film of the year so far is classic fairytale: “Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” And while there are some elements that work better than others (I wasn’t personally the biggest fan of the literal “beasts”) there are two “catch-your-breath” sequences involving Hushpuppy’s mother. Pure mythic, magical realism scenes that are equal parts Laura Esquival and fairydust. But when Hushpuppy descends into the red-tinged dance club called Elysian Fields, her hero’s quest almost complete, she’s not just a fairytale figure, she’s an achingly real girl. This film does so successfully what many fail to do: make a tale more honest by making it less true.