From a story of a princess enchanted by sleep to a tale of children lured to a house made of confectionary, fairytales have long inhabited the minds of readers and film-watchers throughout the ages. Revered by adults for their powerful moral strength to warn children of the veritable dangers of life and loved by children for the enchanting worlds conjured before them, the realm of the fairytale is one filled with magic, myth, love and fantasy.
A world of fairies, beasts, goblins and ghouls, the creatures that pervade the world of the fairytale embody the wildest fantasies albeit also the darkest dreams of the mind. It is perhaps for this very reason that fairytales have translated so well from page on screen; fairytale films physically manifest not only what we believe to be unfathomable in our world in beautiful visual style but also implicitly remind of the real perils of our world which we wish to never encounter.
The folkloric world of magic and imagination that resonates so well with filmgoers has been captured by directors from the far reaches of the globe; each— adding their own cultural essence to fables with universally pertinent values, morals and truths. The following list will explore 20 of the greatest fairytale fables to have ever been captured on screen; each film— beautifully crafted and magical in their portrayal of the wonderful world of fantasy.
20. Ever After (1998)
Inspired by the enduring Grimm’s Brothers’ fairytale Cinderella, the 1998 romantic feature tells the story of the “little cinder girl” whose classic rags-to-riches ascent— overcoming life’s hardships with persistence and a headstrong nature resounds as one of the most pertinent and important moral lessons to reverberate through the world of the fairytale.
The costume drama suspends the supernatural and fantastical elements of the classic tale— leaving such elements as the enchanted carriage and fairy godmother behind in favour of a more realistic portrayal of the fable.
Set in 16th century Renaissance France, the romantic comedy-drama follows the tale of the Cinderellaesque Danielle and incorporates the classic elements of the slipper, the handsome prince, the wicked stepmother and the fairy stepmother of sorts— in a renaissance twist, embodied by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The angelic portrayal of Danielle by Drew Barrymore, the opulent costumes and beautiful locations of the film see for it to be regarded as an exquisite film with strong fairytale roots that continue to delight.
19. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
The oldest surviving animated feature film of all time, Lotte Reiniger’s intoxicatingly beautiful animated masterpiece is also one of the greatest fairytale films.
Featuring the first ever use of silhouette animation on a film of feature length, Reiniger’s film employs intricately detailed cardboard cutouts resembling shadow puppetry to depict her story based upon Arabian fairytale classic— ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Reiniger’s animated classic depicts the story of the noble Prince Achmed whose is taken on a journey involving love, beasts and discovery; along the way discovering the ultimate symbol of the fantasy realm— Aladdin’s magical lamp.
The stunning tinted colouring— thanks to German and British restoration during the 1990s utilising the “Desmet method”, magical animation style and enchanting story see for it to be beloved as a landmark film in the history of cinema and more specifically— an intriguing fairytale captured by a striking and rare silhouette art-form.
18. Pinocchio (1940)
Disney’s 1940 masterpiece is not only one of its finest features but is also perhaps one of the most beautiful, touching, and moralistically rich animated films of all time. Based upon Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fable ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’, the stunningly animated film tells the tale of a wooden puppet named Pinocchio being brought to life by a beautiful blue fairy.
The fairytale reminds us of the importance of honesty and selflessness with its prevailing moral message of truth being reiterated through the adventures of the marionette; prone to telling lies, it is only through being “brave, truthful and unselfish” that Pinocchio may become a “real boy”— his one prevailing desire.
The film features some of the greatest animated scenes of all times— from the terrifying scene depicting the giant whale Monstro’s attack— swallowing up Pinocchio, to the astonishingly magical scene of Pinocchio’s transformation by the Blue Fairy.
A heartwarming work of art, Disney’s classic feature is profound in its storytelling power; it is an incredibly exquisite parable saturated in charm that has remained pertinent through the ages reminding children to “let your conscience be your guide” and to uphold the values of truth, honour and integrity.
17. The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Raoul Walsh’s 1924 silent film masterpiece has been often claimed as one of the greatest silent films of all time and indeed it is. The epic fantasy has been considered not only a film of epic proportions but also vision of splendour and according to Jeffrey Vance “an artistic triumph”.
Perhaps one of the most beautifully crafted silent films in history, Walsh’s romantic fantasy-adventure oozes with dazzling imagery, a stellar cast and some of the most innovative special effects of the silent film era; Walsh creating bewildering imagery of flying carpets, magic crystal balls and incredible, awe-inspiring Arabian sets— the combination of which still stuns film-watchers today.
Star Douglas Fairbanks plays a thief infatuated with the princess of Bagdad in Walsh’s silent adventure based upon, along with Reininger’s aforementioned animation, several of the Arabian Nights fairy tales.
A film brimming with silent film greats, ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ showcases the athletic prowess of the iconic Fairbanks of whom considered the film to be his greatest and would go on to typify the swashbuckler role depicted in Bagdad in other films such as ‘The Mask of Zorro’ (1920), ‘Robin Hood’ (1922) and ‘The Black Pirate’ (1926). Walsh’s silent masterpiece also marked the budding stardom of now legendary Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in the role of a Mongol slave.
16. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Studio Ghibli’s fantastical animated masterpiece is a masterful retelling of the ancient 10th century Japanese folktale. Isao Takahata’s film tells in intricate detail, the tale of a mysterious, small girl; found within a glowing stalk of bamboo, the miniature girl blossoms into a beautiful young lady who is fiercely courted by numerous men.
Animated in an exquisite watercolour style, the film’s touching soundtrack and rich, vivid storytelling technique renders it an astonishing piece of work; profoundly moving, it is one of Ghibli’s most beautiful features.
15. The Tale of the Fox (1930)
A hidden gem, animation pioneer Ladislas Starevich’s influential stop motion animation is an artistic marvel. Drawing from classic fables, Starevich produced an astonishing piece of animation that tells the story of the anthropomorphic Reynard— a sly and mischievous fox whose amoral trickery, stealing and deviant lifestyle sees for the demand for his capture & punishment by the king.
After defending his castle, Reynard is captured. In an amazing twist ending, the noble lion king however cannot bring himself to punish the trickster whose charm and sharp wit see for him to instead be paradoxically rewarded with a newfound, prestigious title; this— refuting the conventional moral message of wickedness paying the price.
Starevich’s incredible attention to detail in depicting the facial expressions and mannerisms of his anthropomorphic characters, witty dark humour, marvellous sound & dialogue, and smooth, organic animation style render it a remarkable piece of work that has not dated, remaining fun and unforgettable to this day.