The Death of the Fairytale?

February 24, 2011 § 8 Comments

The fairytale is dead.

It is official: Disney has decreed it so. It has recently been reported (link here) that Disney has decided not to produce any more animated films based on fairytales, possibly because their recent efforts – The Princess and the Frog, and the oddly-named ‘Tangled’ – have not been the stupendous world-shaking blockbusters they were hoping for.’

Here’s a quote:

“It’s hard to imagine a world without Disney’s fairy tales. What do we tell the children? Kissed frogs don’t turn into princes, wicked stepsisters win out, glass slippers just won’t fit.”

There are various angles to this development. It’s arguable that the Disney Effect has been a corrupting influence on fairytales. There’s no denying that the sugar-coated, happily-ever-after formula for most of the movies in question is a far cry from the fairy stories of old: designed not to instill in children the happy belief that dreams can come true, but rather to terrify them into good behaviour, and possibly to prepare them for the idea that life isn’t always perfect.

On the other hand, there’s  nothing intrinsically wrong with the message that life can be happy and good, too, and that bad things can happen but good tends to follow eventually. As a girl brought up on Disney films, Greek myths and the Brothers Grimm, I think there’s room for all. I certainly think that there’s ample room to keep reinterpreting and retelling fairy stories of all kinds.

‘Film industry watchdog Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood says that animated fairy tales “are getting harder and harder to market. You can’t make enough money just appealing to one quadrant, in this case very young girls.”‘

Since when are very young girls the only people who watch Disney films? Unless it’s true that my mental age is less than I thought; might be something in that.

Anyway, I really don’t believe that fairytales as an entire category have become hard to market. The difficult question is: what do people expect from a fairy story nowadays? It’s already noticeable that the Disney fairytale formula has changed a lot in the last five or six decades. Compare Disney’s Cinderella with the much more recent Disney film, Hercules.

The earlier heroine’s a product of mid-twentieth-century expectations for women: she’s sweet-tempered, loyal, dedicated, patient and essentially passive. She tolerates the appalling behaviour of her step-family indefinitely – with a smile  and a song – and in the end she needs her fairy godmother and her Prince Charming to rescue her.

Hercules’s heroine, Meg, is an entirely different kettle of fish. She’s searingly intelligent, extremely independent, doesn’t have time for romance or fairy stories and she is, quite importantly, a fallen woman. She’s incredibly witty and she turns Hercules – her ‘hero’ – down flat when he tries to rescue her. This is more the kind of woman we expect to see in modern film. Is this more what we look for in our modern fairy tales?

Every Disney heroine since at least the early 1990s has fitted this general mould, and that’s a trend discernible elsewhere. Shrek is another great example of a series of films determined to turn ‘traditional’ fairytales upside down, and to reorder the roles of hero and heroine. Does it still work, though? Have we had enough of this interpretation? Is it time for a new type of story?

Recent films such as ‘The Brothers Grimm’ might suggest yes. Maybe we’re ready to go back to the darker tales; maybe the Disney formula of happily-ever-after’s grown a bit stale. I’d be sorry to think so, though. There’s a sense of optimism and light-heartedness about Disney films, both classic and modern, that still delights me and I don’t want to see that die.

Then again, I like the shadowy tales too. Let’s just have some of everything, how about that?

'The Chase of the White Mice' by John Anster Fitzgerald


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§ 8 Responses to The Death of the Fairytale?

  • The shadowier, the better!

  • Ellie says:

    I have heard Disney described as plastic castles and pink pavements….uneducated fools!

    I am still scared ****less of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and no matter how many times I watch it, i’m still shocked by Scar’s cruelness in the Lion King.

    For me I find it sad that they are truning their back on animation. What will me and the kids watch on a Sunday afternoon now?

    • Charlotte says:

      Absolutely true. It’s completely unfair to suggest Disney’s nothing but bubblegum. They can still make me cry and I’m a grown woman. I’m sad about this news too, but I’m hoping it’s a bit of an exaggeration – surely Disney wouldn’t stop producing them altogether! (Wouldn’t they? Or is that a bubblegum-pink overly-optimistic Disney attitude in itself?).

  • saradeurell says:

    I love this post. I love all the angles you’re looking at this from – the need for optimism in a world that tends to look down on idealism; also, the need for a dose of grim, dark reality that (ironically) traditional fairy tales exposed kids to; and the new angle on heroines.

    This is one of the reasons I absolutely love some of the books coming out for kids 9-12, especially in the fantasy genre, these days. The Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, etc. I feel like some of these newer kids’ fantasy books are really nailing everything – a good balance of darkness/grimness/you-don’t-get-everything-you-want-in-life and optimism/power-of-goodness/happy outcomes – strong female characters who are still vulnerable and human and strong male characters, too, who are also vulnerable and human.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the post. It was an interesting one to write. That’s a very good point about recent children’s publications. The flipside to it is reports of some slightly older books for children now being interpreted as too scary – like Where the Wild Things Are, and some of the Roald Dahl books. Which strikes me as ridiculous. It’s always good to see authors ignoring these absurdities and continuing to produce great, strong literature for kids and young adults that tackle a range of issues – both optimistic and dark.

  • I was saddened when I saw this news, too… although I haven’t gotten around to seeing Princess & the Frog nor Tangled, they’re on the netflix list, and I’ve long enjoyed the Disney breed of movie.

    And I’m an almost-middle-aged male…

    It’s the fantasy that I enjoy most.

  • Also point out: some of us liked the darker fairy tales such as that in “Brother’s Grimm”… but you’ll recall that movie didn’t do so well at the Box Office either.

    • Charlotte says:

      I think it’s fair to say that fairytales are indeed timeless- as you say, it’s the fantasy that catches the imagination, and I really believe it always will. I didn’t know that the Brothers Grimm didn’t fare well at box office, actually. That’s both interesting and slightly alarming – more ammunition against fairy tales, perhaps, if neither light nor dark are doing especially well these days. On the other hand, cinema figures seem increasingly deranged – if a film doesn’t conquer the world in its first weekend, it’s only ‘moderately’ successful – even if it makes untold millions in the end. So one wonders sometimes what these reports of ‘poor performance’ really mean.

      Possibly there have just been too many of them in the last few years. Given a hiatus of a few more, they’ll be back in style. They always are!

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