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Fairy Tales

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Jack and the Beanstalk
Poor Cinderella
Santa Claus
Cinderella 2000
Deadly Snail vs. Kung-fu Killer
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Hansel and Gretel
Sita Sings the Blues
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Traditions of folklore and fairy tale inspired the earliest of filmmakers and it didn’t take them long to discover how to visualize the miraculous via trick photography and special effects. Yet who could have predicted just how “special” those effects would eventually become in the present day, when CGI-engorged new versions of old favorites like Snow White emerge yearly? Fairy tale-derived titles do, however, stray from the well-beaten commercial path and the best delight and terrify with their quirky imaginative breadth. They take us from the dawn of silent cinema to the cutting edge of modern indie animation, from Hollywood to Mexico to South Korea to ancient India, with a pit stop or two at your friendly local exploitation grindhouse, where, be warned, children should not proceed.

By Dennis Harvey

Jack and the Beanstalk

(1902) directed by George Fleming, 10 minutes

Plucky country youth Jack is given magic beans by a wand-weaving fairy and climbs the fabled beanstalk skyward to slay a giant (here just a tall, athletically built actor) in this 1902 fairy tale adaptation. Quite an elaborate production for its moment, the Edison Company project boasts some of the same innovations that co-director Edwin S. Porter would soon make a greater splash with via The Great Train Robbery a few months later. The mix of theatrical (painted sets, a "dancing cow" with two men stuck inside its costume) and cinematic effects (trick photography) is vigorous and imaginative, if admittedly indebted to the concurrent French fantasy films of Georges Méliès. The latter's famed A Trip to the Moon came out the same year, and Porter was certainly familiar with his work; in fact he'd been tasked with pirating some Méliès films by the monopolistic Edison.

Poor Cinderella

(1934) directed by Dave Fleischer, 10 minutes

Poor Betty Boop: when this color cartoon short was made in 1934, the censorious Production Code had just begun being enforced. Which meant that our hitherto scantily clad cartoon flapper now had her imaginary assets fully covered. That doesn't spoil the fun, however, in this then-rare color cartoon that charmingly re-invents the classic story to suit its squeaky-voiced heroine. It's an ambitious charmer that shows the Fleischer Studios at a peak of craft and invention. Kicking off their series of "Color Classics," it even finds room for a parody of then-popular crooners Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby.

Santa Claus

(1959) directed by René Cardona, 95 minutes

Some beloved figures of folklore come with their own convenient holiday marketing tie-ins, and filmmakers realized long ago that a movie tapping both successfully could become a lucrative "perennial" trotted out every year for kiddie matinees. Such was the case with this 1959 superproduction from the prolific René Cardona, who along with son Rene Jr. provided Mexican and international markets with oddball exploitation features for decades. Santa Claus (1959) has everything: an "It's a Small World"-type production number (in which countries represented include "the Orient" and "even Russia"); a jazz ballet for leaping red-jumpsuited demons in Hell; Lucifer himself sending minions to Mexico City in order to tempt kids into being more naughty than nice (because "The devil likes rude little boys!"); jolly Old St. Nick living in somewhat sci-fi North Pole circumstances; plus appearances by Vulcan, Merlin and a "magic parasol." This bizarre bad-taste mix of cuteness, religious morality and the macabre baffled children for decades as a broadcast staple, becoming a cult classic in the process. Yes, it is even weirder than Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Cinderella 2000

(1977) directed by Al Adamson, 103 minutes

Appealing to a very different audience was drive-in legend Al Adamson's (Satan’s Sadists, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) 1977 sci-fi disco-musical sex comedy. It came toward the end of a cycle in which adult cinema morphed classic children's tales into considerably racier form, with tongue firmly in cheek (and everywhere else). This softcore campstrosity is set in 2047, when fornication is forbidden to all save those lucky few who win permission to score via computer lottery. Naturally, beautiful blonde Cindy, living with stepmother and two trashy stepsisters, finds a way to end society's torment by what is officially diagnosed as "the hornies." Shot in nice garish color but done majorly on the cheap (the big "castle ball" sequence is set-decorated primarily by birthday party balloons), with original songs by one "Sparky Sugarman," it's an incredible relic of Me Decade tackiness.

Deadly Snail vs. Kung-fu Killer

(1977) directed by Ling Hsiang, 87 minutes

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Hong Kong filmmakers were mining their own rich folkloric traditions to sustain the original martial-arts movie craze, although sometimes no doubt they were just making it up as they went along. One suspects that was the case with this berserk 1977 fantasy-action mashup. Deliciously senseless at times (one can only imagine the editor's plight), its hero is a sort of male Cinderella, treated as a servant by the mean relatives whose estate he should rightfully control. He finds an advocate in the form of a fairy princess he frees from a sea snail (don't ask), and . . . well, let's just say there are snake demons and wood demons and plot elements left randomly hanging like dangling participles. Journey to the West it is not. But Ling Shang's film surely bears some resemblance to classic Chinese mythological tales, even if it makes a lovable hash of them.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

(1985) directed by Jiri Barta, 53 minutes

Already one of the darkest of classic fairy tales (or at least one of those least watered-down in translation from original sources to myriad popular latter day incarnations) this acclaimed 1985 short feature by Czech animator Jiří Barta revels in its grotesque humor and dark view of humanity. A medieval village plagued by rats hires the titular figure to rid them of the vermin. But when the greedy, venal townsfolk get what they want, they decide to cheat the enigmatic stranger, leading to his terrible revenge involving the burg's children. The extraordinary production design and stop-motion technique make this one of the most cruelly barbed, nightmarish takes on a story (whose roots date back as far as the 13th century) that had already inspired unusually "Grimm" movies ranging from one by silent fantasist Paul Wegener to a 1972 version by French musical specialist Jacques Demy.

Hansel and Gretel

(2008) directed by Yim Phil-Sung, 116 minutes

Yim Pil-Sung's 2008 South Korean take on the European legend is an exquisitely made, slow-burning nightmare in which adults are the ones trapped in a ginger-bread house of witchy children, not vice versa. A young man (Chun Jung Myung) wakes from a car accident to find himself in lost in the woods. He finds shelter in an isolated, picturesque home inhabited by three adorable, welcoming kids and two strangely anxious "parents." Eventually our hero discovers escape is near-impossible from this too-perfect domestic prison and its enchanted surroundings. "Is this place some kind of Bermuda Triangle?" he cries. Yup. Beautifully designed in kitschy clutter and super-bright colors, this adventurous update on another German folkloric classic grows ever more horrific even as it earns considerable pathos. The conceptual approach might be far from traditional Hansel and Gretel treatments, but don't worry, somebody does get cooked in an oven.

Sita Sings the Blues

(2009) directed by Nina Paley, 82 minutes

Acclaimed U.S. indie animator Nina Paley had a boyfriend who went to India for work, got dumped long-distance (via email!), and subsequently crowdfunded what is simply one of the best animated features for grownups ever made. (Though kids might well like it, too.) It's far from just a breakup movie: the line-drawn thread depicting Paley's relationship breakdown is raffishly funny and confessional, but the main narrative thread is a delightful imagining of the oft-retold, and oft-confusingly re-interpreted "Ramayana," an ancient Hindu epic chronicling the stormy wedlock between Lord Rama and Princess Sita. The latter was abducted by a demon king but resisted his overtures until her husband came to the rescue. In many versions, however, Rama refused to believe she'd remained virtuous, spurning her for an unfaithfulness she denied. Influenced by everything from Betty Boop to video games, deploying a great variety of animation techniques in what's nonetheless practically a one-woman show, Paley's 2009 film is a quirky, many-leveled delight.