Hags and Heroines: Once upon a time in the Movies
Once upon a time and forever… Fairytales have endured through the centuries, but few would have predicted Hollywood’s current obsession with children’s bedtime classics. Comic books, yes. Greek Gods, fine. But Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood…? Really??
In the months prior to this week’s dippily amusing and fabulously dressed Mirror Mirror (the first of competing Snow White movies) we’ve already seen Amanda Seyfried molested by a big bad wolf in Red Riding Hood, Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer in Beastly, and Puss in Boots giving battle to hoolums Jack and Jill. Still to come: Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters (produced by Will Ferrell); Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer; Sam Raimi’s new take on a certain wizard in Oz; and Guillermo del Toro’s new stop-motion animated Pinocchio. Del Toro has also announced a new version of Beauty And The Beast, with Emma Watson attached to star.
Why the sudden surge? Well, it helps that we all grow up on these yarns, which means we’re all potentially intrigued to see what Hollywood makes of them. And what’s more, they’re all in the public domain, so you don’t have to pay JK Rowling millions of dollars for the rights. They play into the industry’s current fetish for CGI wizardry, and they come equipped with indelible characters that most actors would love to chew on: intrepid huntsmen, royals, hags, crones and witches, giants, dwarfs, you name it. But I suspect the surprising legs shown by a smelly green ogre named Shrek in four films and now a spin-off hit has a lot to do with it. A billion dollars at the box office has a way of catching producers’ attention.
So long as they can convince teenagers they’re not just for kids, these latest fairytale films should do very nicely… And that’s the key of course, because no one wants to make movies for infants, really (despite all appearances to the contrary). Infants and up is the goal. So today’s C21st variations generally come with an ironic wink and a modern subtext or two.
Female empowerment seems to be the theme du jour, judging by Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and the forthcoming Brave. After years of giving little girls nothing but Barbie-dreams of pretty princesses filmmakers seem to have woken up to the idea that women may aspire to more than Prince Charming.
Fashions change, but underneath the dressing these tales still touch on the same themes of innocence venturing out into the deep dark woods that they always have. People will talk about the new films having a “darker” sensibility, but only those people who have never read the Grimm stories in their original form – believe me, these tales were always dark and dangerous, bedtime stories to inspire troubled nights and fever dreams.
That’s true of some of the classic film versions too: the beautiful evil Queen in Disney’s 1937 Snow White (the studio’s first feature length animation), voiced by the fabulously named Lucille La Verne, surely makes a bigger impression than Snow herself, and who will ever forget the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West played by former kindergarten teacher Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz? Hamilton said that for years afterwards, if she visited a school, the children would demand that she give them the witch’s cackle – but as soon as they heard it, she would catch a split second of terror in the eyes of even the older kids. Then, she said, they’d clap. “They wanted to hear it, and they didn’t at the same time,” she said.
More than anything it’s that paradoxical fear and fascination that keep us coming back to hear (and see) these stories again and again. They are rehearsals for confronting the danger and wickedness out there in the world, and - who knows? - closer to home too, probably.
Hags and Crones
The Queen (Lucille La Verne, Snow White)
Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz)
Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy, Tangled)
Cruella de Ville (Glenn Close/Betty Lou Gerson, 101 Dalmations)
Queen Narcissa (Susan Sarandon, Enchanted)
Miss Evra Ernst (Angelica Huston, The Witches)
Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci, The Brothers Grimm)
Sister Gomez (Vincent Gallo, Freeway II: Confessions of a Trick Baby)
Cads and Creeps
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter)
Mr Nick (Tom Waits, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus)
Huntsman (Micha Bergese, The Company Of Wolves)
Dr Facilier (Keith David, The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Richard White, Beauty and the Beast)
J Worthington Foulfellow (Walter Catlett, Pinocchio)
Heroes and Heroines
Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon, Freeway)
Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands)
Coraline (Dakota Fanning, Coraline)
David (Haley Joel Osment, AI: Artificial Intelligence)
Ariel (Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid)
Danielle (Drew Barrymore, Ever After)
Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland, Tideland)
Giselle (Amy Adams, Enchanted)
Dorothy (Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz)
Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes)
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