The European Fairy Tale and the Cinema Three Recent Films About Fairy Tales Happily N’Ever After, Arthur and the Invisibles and Pan’s Labyrinth
Taking the least as the first, Happily N’Ever After offers an original if self-defeating spin on the idea of fairy tales. In Happily’s universe, the fairy tales are regulated by an omnipotent wizard who watches the fairy tales unfold on his remote control powered mirror and who carefully balances the scales between good and evil so that the tales always turn out happily ever after. The implication is that the fairy tales once finished immediately restart from zero so that each tale is the equivalent of a Sisyphean quest only the characters don’t realize that they are endlessly repeating the same story over and over again.
The movie hinges on the idea that the wizard (George Carlin) takes a golfing vacation in Scotland and while he is away his bumbling assistants Munk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick) accidentally let Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother Freida (Sigourney Weaver) get her hands on the wizard’s staff and all hell breaks loose, especially for ‘Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the handsome but not too bright Prince Humperdink (Patrick Warburton) and the Prince’s assistant Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who is hopelessly in love with ‘Ella.
The animation is neither excellent nor terrible although there is something soul-killing about so many people labouring for years to achieve mediocrity. The songs are equally mediocre, a huge failing in a genre that relies so heavily on good songs to propel the story. The voices are universally excellent and well-cast, though sadly given little truly interesting to say. Also it is sometimes too evident especially with Andy Dick that the voices were recorded separately and then mixed together. No fault to the voices actors here, this is standard practice in the industry, but in Pixar film you would never detect the seams from stiching the voices together. Also makes me admire Kenneth Branagh even more for insisting that he and Kevin Kline do their voices together for The Road to El Dorado to get the right quality to the repartee.
It is a little odd to hear Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. cooing at each other, the voices were obviously recorded while they were still dating. Makes you wonder if there is an animated soundtrack out there with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt on it from the pre Bradgelina days?
The one place where the movie dares to soar a little bit, points to its central weakness. The Seven Dwarves are bereft of Snow White thanks to Freida tipping the scales squarely in favour of evil. They show unexpected resourcefulness revealing things about their home and their characters that the stories never explored.
The problem with the film is this idea that fairy tales are rigid, that they stay the same for all time. Fairy tales are fluid. They change and mold as society does. There will always be Cinderella stories, but the Cinderella that we get changes dramatically over time. Happily N’Ever After tries to pin down the fairy tale like a bug with a pin and succeeds only in killing its own story.
Arthur and the Invisibles or as I prefer to call it Arthur et les Minimoys is a bright, cheerful original fairy tale from French director Luc Besson. It has been compared to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but that’s really a non-starter. Roger Rabbit and films like it Pete’s Dragon or Mary Poppins say, allowed the human cast to interact fully with the animated characters. In Arthur, while there is some slight interaction between the two worlds, in general the human world is shot in live action, while the miniature world of the Minimoys is animated, even to the extent that when Arthur (Freddie Highmore) passes from the human world to the kingdom of the Minimoys, he becomes an animated Minimoy right down to the pointed ears and the oddly bondage inspired clothing. The film is more like Wizard of OZ where the real life sequences are in black and white and the fantasy sequences are in colour.
Again the voice casting is excellent with David Bowie being especially good as the evil Maltazard. It is a little bit creepy that Arthur falls in love with Princess Selenia considering she is voiced by Madonna, although Besson at least plays with the creepiness factor by having Princess Selenia introduced as a thousand years old.
The film does make excellent use of music, especially in a sequence where they are in the kingdom of Max (Snoop Dogg) whose dance floor is a phonograph player. When a fight breaks out and Princess Selenia begins sword-fighting in tune to Chuck Berry’s C’Est La Vie, well it doesn’t get much better than that.
Minor Quibble Department: The record that Snoop Dogg is playing and scratching has one of the most eclectic song lists ever put on one side of an album.
The quality of the animation is superb, while the live action shots look like they were cribbed from lost Norman Rockwell paintings. As Arthur’s grandmother, Mia Farrow positively glows. It is this light that points to the weakness of the film. The film does not give darkness enough room to… well… shine.
Take its central villain, Maltazard. He is a lost opportunity in the film. By far the most interesting character, he abides by the cardinal rule of great villains. He believes that he is the hero and that his actions are justified. This is brought out during a scene between Princess Selenia and Maltazard which features a great deal of expositional dialogue and very little action. I think that if we could have seen the events of Maltazard’s life rather than being told about them the film would have been much better.
The lack of connection between Maltazard and Arthur’s “real” life is another weakness of the film. Traditionally, when a child travels to a fantasy kingdom, the villains in that kingdom are inspired by the kingdoms in his real life. Dorothy’s friends and enemies in OZ are reflections of her real life.
The film is set during the Great Depression and the central plot is Arthur’s quest for a treasure hidden by his missing grandfather. Without this treasure, the family farm will be lost. Because the villainous real estate speculator, Davido (Adam LeFevre) is played more as a bumbling buffoon than a truly menacing villain, and because the live action shots are so damn cheerful, it seems like the Great Depression is nothing more than a minor inconvenience that was overcome through being kind to your neighbours, holding a few yard sales and having a rip-roaring adventure in your back-yard.
I’m not arguing that fairy tales shouldn’t have happy endings, just that if you don’t give your villains space to be evil, if you don’t paint the dangers with a dark enough brush, the triumphs mean nothing.
Lack of darkness is not a weakness of Pan’s Labyrinth. It is perhaps the darkest, bleakest film about childhood that you will see this or any other year. Directed in Spanish by Guillermo del Toro it tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who travels deep into the mountains of Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War with her pregnant mother to be reunited with her Republican step-father who is in the process of hunting the tattered remnants of the local rebels.
While traveling, Ophelia meets an insect who may be a fairy and this insect/fairy leads her to a labyrinth in the back of the mansion where her step-father has set up his headquarters. In the middle of the labyrinth is a faun, who tells Ophelia that she is a reborn soul - the missing daughter of the King of the Underworld and if she has te courage to complete three difficult tasks, she will be reunited with her father. As Ophelia tries to complete these tasks, her fantasy life and her real life intersect more and more.
Minor Quibble Department: Two really tiny quibbles before I get to the important stuff. First, the film is badly titled in English. In Spanish the film is called El Laberinto del Fauno. The faun in question never calls himself Pan. He is a faun, not necessarily the faun, Pan. There is also a sequence where the rebels are reading a newspaper and they seem to be discussing Eisenhower’s Normandy Invasion, pushing the date of the events much further than the introduction would have us believe.
When I saw this movie, it sadly snapped about three quarters in. (The sequence where the compassionate doctor is being brought in to bandage the captured stuttering rebel so that he can face yet more torture.) For most fantasies, this kind of interruption would be death, but Pan’s Labyrinth was so engrossing that the delay while annoying simply delayed pleasure rather than ruining the entire film.
Not speaking Spanish makes me wonder is some of the marvelous language being used in the film are the result of a happily poetic translator or a merely competent one translating Del Toro’s own poetry. Ophelia says that her mother is “sick with child” and this wonderful phrase perfectly illustrates one of Ophelia’s real life worries, leading her to plead with her unborn brother to spare her mother’s life.
Lacking knowledge of Spanish art, I didn’t have the frisson of recognition when Del Toro uses Goya’s artwork to illustrate his nightmarish fantasy visions. But you don’t have to be an art geek to be moved by these nightmares especially as brought to life by Doug Jones who went to the trouble of learning enough Spanish to give voice to Pan. It is, however, his non-verbal work that is on display most terrifyingly as the monstrous Pale Man, who reminds not a little bit of Neil Gaiman’s dream-killer The Corinthian from Sandman. The two men were fishing from the same pool no doubt.
The best part of the film is that it will reward continuous reviewing. I left the theatre determined to research the mythology of mandrake roots and the reliability of fauns. I haven’t actually done that yet, but I fully intend to before I sit down to see the film again, and I suspect that I may give this a Goya fellow a look-see as well.
The film offers no easy answers. The best fairy tales tell us that sacrifice and pain are inevitable and sometimes even necessary. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen especially with the Little Mermaid and Oscar Wilde especially with the Happy Prince offered us tales of childhood that are bleak and frequently lacking in a happy ending, because sometimes childhood is not happy. This film is wiser for knowing that.
The biggest question that I am grappling with is at what age this film would be appropriate to be seen. On one hand, it offers a truly courageous young heroine that young girls could truly identify with. On the other hand, it also is a dark, grim tale saturated in blood and with the vilest tortures implied if not actually shown. A fairy also gets eaten in a moment that will probably shock more children than the death of Republican and Rebel soldiers. On the gripping hand, should a film this wise about childhood and children be hidden from children?
(edited by Llakor on 25.1.07 2101)
The European Fairy TILE? Shoot me now.
(edited by Llakor on 25.1.07 2127) "Don't Blame CANADA, Blame Yourselves!"
Its silly, but I've always wanted to write a pilot for a show similar to this. I could never figure out who to focus on (a wrestler jumping from Indy to big time, a new writer on staff were two ideas).