Directors get caught up in everything but the content while revisiting a fairytale.

Once upon a time in the make-believe land of Hollywood, moviemakers were in desperate need of good story ideas. Seeing their distress a kind-hearted fairy godmother waved her creative wand, and revealed to them the magical world of fairy-tales.

In the resultant whirring of cameras, some pumpkins stayed as raw fruit; others turned to solid gold — most notably in the category of animation, a natural home to park the fairy-tale chariot. Movies such as “The Little Mermaid” or “Beauty and the Beast” became heart-warming favourites for more than one generation.

The fairy-tale platform is now seeing a sudden rush of new entrants, in the form of live action adaptations — most recently, Tarsem Singh's “Mirror Mirror” where Julia Roberts has a visibly good time playing a narcissistic despot. Sadly, the charm of the fairly-tale is absent; tellingly, the film's showstoppers are the animation sequence that precedes the live action, and the dazzling costumes by the late Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka.

What the mirror reflects back to us is this: It's not an easy feat to pull off, the layering of post-modern, self-aware jesting over the tropes of a beloved fairy-tale.

It's not any easier if you try tapping into the fairy-tale underbelly. The most terrifying engagement with the dark side of fairy-tales I have seen is a play called “The Pillowman” (2003) by Martin McDonagh. Based in an unnamed totalitarian state, a writer is interrogated about his brutal short stories in which the tropes of fairy-tales — poisoned apples, axe-wielding huntsmen and orphaned kiddies — are shockingly reinvented. Sitting through the play was a visceral, frightening experience.

Malnourished characters

But when director Catherine Hardwicke tried for a dark psychosexual take in “Red Riding Hood” (2011) — following Neil Jordan's “The Company of Wolves” (1984) — the results were toothless. Amanda Seyfried was well cast as the eponymous heroine — what big eyes you have Amanda; but everything else, under-nourished werewolf included, lacked bite. Overall, it was tediously grim stuff rather than terrifying Grimm stuff.

More on the pseudo feminist psychosexual issue: Last year also saw another female director, Australian Julia Leigh, debut with “Sleeping Beauty”. The art-house semi-porn film tries hard to push the erotic envelope, but ends up feeling like a misogynistic Sleazy Beauty or a soporific Snoring Beauty — depending on your point of view. 

Leigh's tale has a dead-broke college student (Emily Browning) allowing herself to be drugged unconscious, during which her rich clients can do whatever they like to her comatose body, short of actual sex. The movie seemed to have little point other than shock value; more problematically, it's hard to feel anything for our heroine, since Browning sleepwalks through her role whether playing awake or asleep.

A familiar pattern that emerges in revisionist fairy-tales is the desire to present a feminist makeover. Oddly enough, it's the animated films that do a better job of female self-actualisation whether Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”) or Rapunzel (“Tangled”). Within the additional dimension of 3D, Salma Hayek held her own as the voice of Kitty Softpaws against the luscious accents of Antonio Banderas' “Puss in Boots”.

In live action it all feels a bit strained — though an exception that comes to mind is spunky Drew Barrymore in the Cinderella story “Ever After”. The heroine has an updated name, Danielle, and a levelheaded attitude even in the midst of royalty and makeovers. “I'm just a servant in a nice dress,” notes Danielle/Cinderella at one point with disarming honesty.

There are also audiences to consider. For example, Daniel Barnz's “Beastly” (2011) took the fairy-tale straight to a young adult demographic with richie-rich cute boy (Alex Pettyfer) converted into a beast by a witchy Goth girl; only his poor but beautiful classmate (Vanessa Hudgens) will take on his rehabilitation.

Void of purpose

Another pattern that emerges in the revisited fairy-tale is how directors get so caught up in magical trees, they lose sight of the wood: i.e., enslaved by the visually dramatic possibilities on offer, they forget that the entire fantastical creation serves a narrative purpose. Most of the care is lavished on look rather than content, whether the recent “Mirror Mirror” or Terry Gilliam's lavishly produced “The Brothers Grimm” (2005).

Other than the Grimm stories, there have been charming reinventions of the fairy-tale genre such as “Princess Bride” or “LadyHawke”, and this is likely to continue. Also coming our way are “Snow White and the Huntsman” starring Twilight's Kristen Stewart next month, while “Jack the Giant Killer” starring young English actor Nicholas Hoult is scheduled for 2013.

Hollywood filmmakers aren't always able to magic the beans into something extraordinary — but fairy-tales still have a hold over us. It's only human to secretly hanker for handsome princes, beautiful princesses and happily ever afters, at least on celluloid.

Keywords: Hollywood