The Fairy Tales behind 5 Awesome Films


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In no particular order…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli makes many fantastic fairytale films, and I’m putting two on this list. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is written and directed by Takahata, who isn’t as well known, in the U.S. at least, as his fellow Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, I’ve only seen this film of his, though he’s directed 5 movies for the studio, and I kind of thought I’d seen most of their films. Obviously not! The Tale of the Princess Kaguya retells the fairy tale The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child (click PDF to read the full version), a really lovely Japanese tale I read first in Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation too, though I love some of the additions Takahata makes at the end. In this fairy tale, a bamboo cutter finds a miniature girl inside a bamboo shoot, and brings her home to his wife so they can raise her as their own daughter. The early scenes of her childhood in the film are so adorable. Wanting the best for his adopted daughter, the father decides to build a mansion for them to live in, though Kaguya would much rather stay in their little home, with her village friends. Beautiful, Kaguya attracts the attention of several suitors, but she would much rather never marry, remain with her family, and enjoy nature. This tale has a really interesting celestial twist at the end, as the title of the original suggests. The film’s lovely animation mimics Japanese silkscreen; the trailer doesn’t do it justice.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I hope you’ve already seen Howl’s Moving Castle, but if you haven’t, you need to. This was my very first Studio Ghibli film, a rental from Hastings in my undergrad, dorm-room days. I instantly fell in love with it, and the very next day went to the library and checked out the book it’s based on–Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, a middle grade novel. Both the film and novel include many fairytale tropes, but in particular they subvert Beauty and the Beast. When the main character, Sophia, is cursed by a witch, she turns into an old woman. She joins Howl in his Baba-Yaga steampunk house, and you’ll never guess it, but Howl can transform into a beast. Actually, there are a bunch of transformations, not just Sophia and Howl. Both versions are excellent, though I admit to liking the movie a bit more than the novel. The steampunk animation is awesome, and it was my first Studio Ghibli film, after all.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is super adorable, and I find myself whistling that theme song ALL OF THE TIME. In case you don’t know, selkies are seals that can transform into humans. A lot of selkie fairy tales describe a seal transforming into a beautiful woman and a man falling in love with her and stealing her seal skin. The two have children, but the selkie wife can’t live away from the ocean, and she becomes more and more unhappy. Then one day one of her children finds her seal skin, and she returns back to the sea. Here’s one such story, though there are many. Sometimes the selkies are male, sometimes they steal humans who come too close to the water, sometimes they save the drowning. There are many, many selkie tales. I highly recommend reading The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend, if you’re interested in selkie legends. Song of the Sea takes up the story after the selkie wife presumably dies in childbirth, leaving behind two children. The eldest, Ben, misses his mother desperately and blames his little sister Saoirse for her death. But he also loves his sister. When Saoirse finds a seal skin that fits her perfectly, their grandmother rushes them to the city, trying to keep them away from the magic that killed their mother. But you can’t fight who you are. This is directed by the same person, Tomm Moore, who made The Secret of Kells, also a fantastic movie. Go watch both!

Ex Machina

All right, now for some adult movies. When I went to see Ex Machina in the theaters, I had no idea it had any fairytale connections. I love artsy sci-fi films, so that’s why I went to see it. By the time it got to the end I was so excited. Bluebeard! In a sci-fi movie! The most famous version of Bluebeard was penned by Charles Perrault in 17th century France. Lots of people tell me they’ve never heard of the tale until I give them the plot. Ever heard of that story where a girl marries this guy she knows nothing about, and she’s allowed in any room in his castle except one? And of course she opens it while he’s gone, and discovers the bodies of all his previous wives? Well, Bluebeard is that story. I also really enjoy two versions collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird and The Robber Bridegroom. Highly recommend reading all of them. Once you’re familiar with the tale, you’ll start spotting this motif in a lot of movies and novels, particularity if you’re into horror and thrillers. I don’t want to go into too many details about how Ex Machina subverts Bluebeard (as well as the idea of a male savior sweeping in to save the princess), but it’s definitely an interesting take on the tale.

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is a classic based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story of the same name. If you’re unfamiliar with HCA, he’s a 19th century Dutch writer that infused Christian morality in his fairytale inspired short stories. Often, his tales illuminate the conditions of the poor and destitute, and many are so famous that people mistakenly believe they’re from an oral tradition, like Little Mermaid. If you haven’t read the original version of Little Mermaid, prepare yourself for one depressing read. In fact, all of HCA’s stories are depressing, but they can also be quite lovely. The Red Shoes is one of my favorites by him. It’s very simple: a little girl falls in love with pair of red shoes, and even though her grandmother tells her not to wear them to church, she does so. When she puts them on she can’t stop dancing, and eventually, well, I don’t want to ruin the story for you. It’s super short, so go read it! The movie version centers on a ballet dancer, Vicky, who eventually dances in a ballet of HCA’s The Red Shoes, so it gets all meta. She loves a composer, but she also loves dancing. How can she choose between the two? I end up rewatching this one about once a year.

What are some of your favorite fairytale films?

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