Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity

Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity


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In this, the first collection of essays to address the development of fairy tale film as a genre, Pauline Greenhill and Sidney Eve Matrix stress, "the mirror of fairy-tale film reflects not so much what its audience members actually are but how they see themselves and their potential to develop (or, likewise, to regress)." As Jack Zipes says further in the foreword, “Folk and fairy tales pervade our lives constantly through television soap operas and commercials, in comic books and cartoons, in school plays and storytelling performances, in our superstitions and prayers for miracles, and in our dreams and daydreams. The artistic re-creations of fairy-tale plots and characters in film—the parodies, the aesthetic experimentation, and the mixing of genres to engender new insights into art and life—mirror possibilities of estranging ourselves from designated roles, along with the conventional patterns of the classical tales.”

Here, scholars from film, folklore, and cultural studies move discussion beyond the well-known Disney movies to the many other filmic adaptations of fairy tales and to the widespread use of fairy tale tropes, themes, and motifs in cinema.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874217810
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 08/06/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

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Fairy Tale Films

Visions of Ambiguity

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2010 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-781-0

Chapter One

Mixing It Up Generic Complexity and Gender Ideology in Early Twenty-first Century Fairy Tale Films

Cristina Bacchilega and John Rieder

While folklorists often define the fairy tale or tale of magic as a narrative where the supernatural is never questioned-thus requiring the audience's absolute suspension of disbelief-recent fairy tale films seem to thrive precisely on raising questions about the realism, if not the reality, of fairy tales and their heroines. For instance, in the popular 1998 film Ever After (directed by Andy Tennant), the heroine's self-proclaimed great-great-granddaughter states, "While Cinderella and her prince did live happily ever after, the point, gentlemen, is that she lived." Bringing closure to the tale she has just told the two men identified as the Brothers Grimm, she reinforces this assertion by producing material evidence: not only a Leonardo portrait that is possibly of her Cinderella ancestor but another precious heirloom: the heroine's ornate and "real" glass shoe.

Charles Perrault's glass slippers lose their magic in that scene, but their material presence on screen adds to the realism that has inflected the noblewoman's telling of "Cinderella" not as a fairy tale but as family history, or, at the very least, legend. This Cinderella is a larger-than-life figure-not simply an ideal beauty but an active, educated, willful, and flawed woman-with whom the teller proudly associates herself, and one whom, presumably, girls at the end of the twentieth century will not dismiss as an outdated fantasy.

To reach adolescents, its target audience, this PG-13 film had to be "realistic," which meant not only using live action but also presenting more rounded characters than Disney's and not relying on the supernatural to produce the heroine's success. Rather, the film ascribed some degree of historical plausibility or legendary dimension to the Cinderella story by grounding its credibility in family history and its cultural significance in humanistic progress. Cathy Lynn Preston persuasively develops such a reading of Ever After. Placing her discussion in the broader popular-culture context of contemporary fairy tale jokes, TV shows, and folk criticism, she describes Ever After as an "American popular culture production of the Cinderella tale that cleverly blurs the boundaries between folktale and legend in an attempt to retrieve the romantic possibilities of 'true love' for the generation currently raised in the aftermath/afterglow of second-wave feminism and post-Marxist critique" (2004, 200). More specifically Preston suggests that the film's combination of "the shift in genre from fairy tale to legend" with "a shift in gender patterns" is a response to "the last thirty years of feminist critique of gender construction in respect to key Western European popularized versions of the fairy tale (in particular those of Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Disney)" (Ibid., 203).

A lot has changed, we agree, in the production and reception of fairy tales in popular culture since the early 1970s, when North American feminists argued vehemently in the public sphere about the genre's role in shaping gender-specific attitudes about self, romance, marriage, family, and social power. Fairy tale studies has emerged as a field where sociohistorical-analysis challenges romanticized views of the genre. The electronic accessibility of a wide range of fairy tales (such as on D. L. Ashliman's Folklinks: Folk and Fairy Tale sites and Heidi Anne Heiner's SurLaLune fairytales. com) has expanded the popular canon far beyond the Perrault-Grimms-Disney triad. World-renowned writers such as Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, and Salman Rushdie-recently christened "the Angela Carter generation" by Stephen Benson-have engaged the genre "intimately and variously," producing "what might be called the contemporaneity of the fairy tale" (Benson 2008, 2). Simultaneously a more critical awareness of the fairy tale has taken hold in popular consciousness. In twenty-first-century North America, the authority of the genre and its gender representations has become more multivocal, as Preston reminds us: "For many people the accumulated web of feminist critique (created through academic discourse, folk performance, and popular media) ... function[s] as an emergent and authoritative-though fragmented and still under negotiation-multi-vocality that cumulatively is competitive with the surface monovocality" of the canonized older fairy tale tradition (2004, 199). Contemporary fairy tales, in both mainstream and eccentric texts, play out a multiplicity of "position takings" (Bourdieu 1985) that do not polarize ideological differences as they did during the 1970s but, rather, produce complex alignments and alliances.

To extend this point-as Cristina Bacchilega has already proposed-it may be helpful to think of the fairy tale genre today as a web whose hypertextual links do not refer back to one authority or central tradition. This early-twenty-first-century "fairy tale web" has woven into it-inside and outside of the academy-multiple, competing historical traditions and performances of the genre as well as varied contemporary revisions in multiple media (see Bacchilega 2008, 193-96). And contributing to this proliferation of the contemporary fairy tale is its hypercommodification in popular film and the marketplace, including clothing, toys, video games, and more-a diversification that also has implications for the way folklorists and/or cultural critics read popular culture's employment of the fairy tale as an "already multilayered polyphony" (Makinen 2008, 151).

In approaching this new or transformed pervasiveness of fairy tale magic in American media today, Jeana Jorgensen builds on Linda Dégh's analysis of fairy tales in advertising (1994) and Preston's observation that "in postmodernity the stuff of fairy tales exists as fragments" acquired through a number of possible forms of cultural production (2004, 210) to tackle a crucial question: how to deal with films and other popular culture texts that "make money on fairy tales while critiquing them" (Jorgensen 2007, 219) and engage the fairy tale but "cannot be reduced to individual fairy tale plots" (Ibid., 218). "These fragments," Jorgensen declares, "whether fairy tale motifs, characters, or plots, are the building blocks of new media texts, inspired by fairy tales but not quite fairy tales themselves." She calls them "fairy tale pastiches ... to privilege their 'schizophrenic instrumentalization of fairy tale matter'" (Ibid.). Indeed, for every fairy tale movie that recycles a recognizable tale or tale type ("Cinderella," ATU 510 to folklorists, in Ever After; ATU 709 in Snow White: A Tale of Terror [directed by Michael Cohn, 1997]), there are other films that-regardless of their classification as comedy, drama, or fantasy-incorporate fairy tale elements drawn from a range of canonical images and themes, such as the young girl's red hoodie reminding viewers of "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) in Hard Candy (directed by David Slade, 2005), the magic slipper and happy ending in Sex and the City (directed by Michael Patrick King, 2008), or the animal helpers in the various Harry Potter movies (directed by Chris Columbus, 2001, 2002; Alfonso Cuarón, 2004; Mike Newell, 2005; David Yates, 2007, 2009) and The Golden Compass (directed by Chris Weitz, 2007). Like Jorgensen, we are interested in this fragmentation of individual tales in relation to social power dynamics, but the emphasis in this essay is less on mixed tale types than the strategy and effects of blending fairy tale elements with other narrative genres.

In this chapter we reflect on some recent, popular, big-budget films that feature fairy tale elements as a major part of their appeal but do not rely on a single fairy tale plot. Recognizing both the fragmentation of the fairy tale-visible in the current configuration of the fairy tale web-and the central role that not just individual tales but some notion of the generic fairy tale continues to play in the encoding and decoding of popular culture, this essay focuses on these films' incorporation and integration of fairy tale elements with other narrative strands-that is, on the films' generic complexity or hybridization.

We do not mean to contrast the generic hybridity of these films with some "pure" version of the fairy tale. All literary or cinematic fairy tales-and indeed almost all narratives longer than a headline or a joke-use more than one genre. At the center of our analysis are relationships of tension or harmony-the clashing or blending of different genres in a text. In classic films, the fairy tale blends into and integrates itself with other film genres. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (directed by David Hand, 1937), the fairy tale and the musical are not in tension but, rather, flow naturally and harmoniously into one another; their shared distance from realism seems complementary. In The Wizard of Oz (directed by Victor Fleming, 1939), the transitions between the realistic Kansas sections of the film and the magic world of Oz are carefully mediated in a way that allows everything in the fantasy section to be explained in realistic terms (that is, as Dorothy's feverish dream).

Some recent films, though, make a point of pushing the hybridity or generic complexity of their narratives into the foreground. Disney's Enchanted (directed by Kevin Lima, 2007)5 creates a passage between a fairy tale world and a realistic one and exploits the two worlds' differences to comic effect as a kind of metacommentary on the suppression of realism in earlier Disney productions of fairy tale films. Other films, like Jim Henson Productions' MirrorMask (directed by Dave McKean, 2005) or Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away (directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2001), seek a more homogeneous combination of what remains a strikingly noticeable and eclectic mix of generic strategies or traditions.

What concerns us is the social significance of the generic hybridity in a range of films, including Enchanted, MirrorMask, Spirited Away, DreamWorks's Shrek trilogy (directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001; Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon, 2004; Chris Miller and Raman Hui, 2007), and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and, especially, the meaning of this approach as an intervention in the contestation or reproduction of gender ideology. If-in John Frow's words-"Texts-even the simplest and most formulaic-do not 'belong' to genres but are, rather, uses of them ... [so that] they refer not to 'a' genre but to a field or economy of genres, and their complexity derives from the complexity of that relation" (2005, 2), how and why has the place of the fairy tale changed in the field of genres? What do those changes have to do with the genre's long and vexed connection to gender ideology? To understand the relationship of the economy of genres to the ideologies of gender, what other fields and economies need to be considered? And because these different types of genre bending affect the reproduction of gender norms and attitudes, what positions are the films staking out within the culture and the industry of entertainment?

Parody and Romance in Enchanted and Shrek

One of the most prominent types of genre mixing in recent fairy tale films is the parodic practice of undercutting fairy tale conventions by contrasting them humorously with realistic ones. The Disney Corporation's Enchanted begins with a scene that evokes the "my prince will come" expectations of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty (directed by Clyde Geronimi, 1959), but then the fairy tale princess, Giselle (Amy Adams), finds herself unexpectedly exiled from the two-dimensional animated world and forced to survive as an exaggeratedly naïve woman in the unfriendly confusion of New York City. The relationship between the cartoon Disney fantasy and the realistic New York setting is apparently one of stark oppositions-pastels decorating the heroine's idyllic relationship with nature and the fulfillment of romance in one space and genre versus grays cementing regular New Yorkers' routine dealings with vermin, dirt, and work in the other. As each of the fairy tale characters emerges into New York from the enchanted world of Andalasia, his or her arrival occasions a traumatic experience. The city takes the place of the unfamiliar forest where classic fairy tale heroines and heroes used to be tested, but at first what is tried is not the characters' mettle so much as their sense of genre. Giselle mistakes a thief for a helper, her prince (James Marsden) mistakes public-utility workers for peasants, and both show an alarming propensity to launch into song during the middle of a conversation. The climax of this incongruity comes in Giselle's musical housecleaning number in New York, a grotesque parody of the similar song in Snow White that has already been more subtly parodied in the film's cartoon section.

Underlying this clash of genres, however, is an economy that reunites them. Enchanted's parodic strategy eventually yields to a return to Disney's familiar fairy tale expectations, even though Giselle changes from a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White innocent persecuted heroine to the rescuer of her "true love" in a "dragon-slaying" scene at the top of the Empire State Building. This mélange of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, King Kong (directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), and Shrek hinges on a role reversal that is hardly transformative. That the dragon is female recalls the lady dragon in Shrek, and in a way minimizes the irrationality of the kidnapping of Robert (Patrick Dempsey), Giselle's New York love interest. That the monstrous dragon is only the final metamorphosis of the monstrously powerful, older, female Narissa (Susan Sarandon), the queen who does not want to relinquish her power to her son, Prince Edward, prompts us to ask who or what is a King Kong threat nowadays. Finally, although Giselle risks her life to save Robert, it's the sidekick chipmunk, Pip, who saves the day in the climax of the film's rehabilitation of city vermin as animal helpers.

So we can't even say that Giselle performs the heroic rescue expected of the Prince Charming stereotype. She is charming, and that's it. In this and all too many other ways, Enchanted merely pays lip service to feminism. While becoming more three dimensional and making choices for herself, Giselle continues to be a cheerful and fashionable housecleaning helpmate, whose actions never question the institution of marriage. The film parodies Disney's earlier representations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty-the princesses who sing but have nothing to say, who engage in cheerful housework and exhibit fashions on hourglass figures, who know their prince will come-but it ultimately seeks only to bring new glamour and power to the Disneyfied fairy tale princess image and her romantic plot.

Furthermore, the film's congruity with the Disneyfication of the fairy tale harnesses its gender ideology to the marketplace. Enchanted blatantly advertises Disney's "princess" franchise, a multi-billion-dollar business that sells toys, DVDs, dolls, and clothes for girls and women. In the transporting song-and-dance scene in Central Park, the commodification of the fairy tale as an escapist or compensatory fiction is naturalized or, more precisely, spectacularized. Early in the film, New Yorkers scoff at the "ever ever after," but in this scene, they (as representatives of Enchanted's mainstream Euro-North American audiences) love pretending they are in its make-believe world, whether this means dressing up for an exclusive and expensive costume ball, dressing up and paying for a fairy tale wedding, or flocking to a children's performance of "Rapunzel" (ATU 310), featuring a young girl with fake long tresses spilling out of a miniature tower in the park-another teaser for an upcoming Disney computer-animated production.


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Table of Contents


Foreword: Grounding the Spell: The Fairy Tale Film and Transformation Jack Zipes....................ix
Introduction: Envisioning Ambiguity: Fairy Tale Films Pauline Greenhill and Sidney Eve Matrix....................1
1 Mixing It Up: Generic Complexity and Gender Ideology in Early Twenty-first Century Fairy Tale Films Cristina Bacchilega and John Rieder....................23
2 Building the Perfect Product: The Commodification of Childhood in Contemporary Fairy Tale Film Naarah Sawers....................42
3 The Parallelism of the Fantastic and the Real: Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth/El Laberinto del fauno and Neomagical Realism Tracie D. Lukasiewicz....................60
4 Fitting the Glass Slipper: A Comparative Study of the Princess's Role in the Harry Potter Novels and Films Ming-Hsun Lin....................79
5 The Shoe Still Fits: Ever After and the Pursuit of a Feminist Cinderella Christy Williams....................99
6 Mourning Mothers and Seeing Siblings: Feminism and Place in The Juniper Tree Pauline Greenhill and Anne Brydon....................116
7 Disney's Enchanted: Patriarchal Backlash and Nostalgia in a Fairy Tale Film Linda Pershing with Lisa Gablehouse....................137
8 Fairy Tale Film in the Classroom: Feminist Cultural Pedagogy, Angela Carter, and Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves Kim Snowden....................157
9 A Secret Midnight Ball and a Magic Cloak of Invisibility: The Cinematic Folklore of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut Sidney Eve Matrix....................178
10 Tim Burton and the Idea of Fairy Tales Brian Ray....................198
List of Tale Types and Literary Stories....................219

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