Hey, these bread crumbs are crack rocks: 9 subversive fairy-tale movies

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Hey, these bread crumbs are crack rocks: 9 subversive fairy-tale movies

Photo: Disney / Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Photo: Disney / Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Lots of movies are obviously patterned after fairy tales, everything from Sydney White to The Beautician And The Beast. There are also a multitude of straight-on adaptations, like Disney’s new live-action Beauty And The Beast, which premieres Friday, March 17. But we’ve noticed that there are some films clearly based on fairy tales that never come right out and express that they are: more inspiration than imitation, if you will. So in honor of Beauty And The Beast, here’s our list of subversive fairy-tale movies, where if you dig a little beneath the surface, you’ll find a golden-haired home invader, a pack of dwarves, a wolf-like villain, and even a real, live boy.

1. Cinderella: Working Girl (1988)

In the Cinderella-esque Working Girl, tireless secretary Tess (Melanie Griffith) works her fingers to the bone for a number of horrific bosses, winding up with evil Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), who steals her ideas just like Cinderella’s stepsisters stole her dress for the ball. Tess is tasked with chores Cinderella herself might turn down, like pushing around a steaming tray of dim sum for hours or handing a roll of toilet paper to her boss in a bathroom stall. But in this big-business fairy tale, the ball is a corporate happy hour, and Tess’ crucial makeover before crashing this party involves “serious hair” and a borrowed $6,000 gown that’s not even leather. At that particular event, our Cinderella also has to dash off unexpectedly and leaves not a shoe but a purse behind, which enables her prince (Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer) to find her, leading to the business machinations that will help Tess escape her dire circumstances. Near the end of the film, Katherine feebly commands, “We don’t have time for fairy tales,” but that just shows how clueless she is: This whole thing is a fairy tale. The best part is that Tess acts as her own fairy godmother, by making her dream happen for herself; her ultimate prize at the end is not shacking up with Jack, but a private office and a secretary of her very own—better than any drafty old castle. [Gwen Ihnat]

2. Little Red Riding Hood: Freeway (1996)

It’s made clear that Freeway will be a dirty take on Little Red Riding Hood from its opening credits, during which freak-out jazz fusion underscores Robert Crumb-like images of a lecherous old wolf pawing at buxom young women. In case that doesn’t come through, the filmmakers make it doubly clear when a young Reese Witherspoon, decked out in all red and on a trip to visit her grandma, gets picked up by a grinning, overly familiar Kiefer Sutherland named Bob Wolverton. The movie traffics in the mid-’90s hard-rock depravity of Kalifornia, Very Bad Things, Wild At Heart, and Natural Born Killers and delights in the level of perversion it layers over the old fairy tale, with an obsessive focus on rape, emotional abuse, racist provocation, and a casual, giggling attitude toward violence. But the movie’s overwhelming salaciousness is saved by Witherspoon—three years prior to Election or Cruel Intentions but still eager to subvert her all-American image. Her whip-smart comic timing helps sell the deliriously trashy story, in which—surprise, surprise—this Little Red Riding Hood turns out to be quite the match for the Big Bad Wolverton. [Clayton Purdom]

3. Hansel And Gretel: Freeway II: Confessions Of A Trickbaby (1999)

Three years after the release of his surprisingly well-received trash romance Freeway, Matthew Bright took another stab at the hyperexploitative modern fairy-tale genre with the incredibly named Freeway II: Confessions Of A Trickbaby. In the sequel, Bright swaps out Reese Witherspoon for Natasha Lyonne and Little Red Riding Hood for Hansel And Gretel. The returns are notably diminished, largely because of the uptick in depravity—David Alan Grier’s lawyer character is introduced getting a handjob from a client in a courthouse lobby—and a downtick in goofily direct fairy tale parallels. Here, Hansel and Gretel are a pair of sometimes romantic young criminals who break out of juvie to go on a south-of-the-border road trip full of killing, screwing, and commingling the two activities. What that has to do with the classic tale of two schoolchildren abandoned in the woods by their evil stepmother is a little unclear, but the trail of bread crumbs they leave is updated in Freeway II to crack rocks, which tells you all you need to know about this trashy, direct-to-video provocation. [Clayton Purdom]

4. Beauty And The Beast: King Kong (1933)

There have been many versions of King Kong since the 1933 original that maintain the parallel to Beauty And The Beast: A beautiful maiden discovers the mythical beast living alone and leads him from his isolated singles pad into civilization. Beauty And The Beast mythologizes a woman’s love as a domesticating force—how her nurturing and bottomless understanding even in the face of a literal monster can metamorphose a belligerent, stinking bachelor into a pleasant enough fellow with the self-possession to wear shoes and eat with a fork. Sadly, there’s no possible transformation for Kong. While the Beast was a victim of a curse, Kong is just a big ass gorilla. Knowing there’s no realistic way to make a relationship work with a woman the size of your pinky, Kong opts instead for the grand gesture: getting up somewhere good and visible where he’s sure everyone can see him, then screaming his frustration at the top of his lungs until he’s finally gunned down by a bunch of biplanes. “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast,” goes the famous final line of the original film as well as the 2005 remake. Look, man, she never asked you to climb the Empire State Building. [Nick Wanserski]

5. Snow White: Ball Of Fire (1941)

On the surface, Ball Of Fire doesn’t seem to have much in common with a fairy tale and a lot to do with 1940s Howard Hawks’ movies: Nightclub spitfire “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) has to hide out from the mob and crashes with a bunch of professors who are working on a cumulative encyclopedia. They soon find out that she’s a wealth of information for current slang, which they have no knowledge of. But slowly, this story starts to seem a bit more familiar; there are seven doddering old professors, after all, who shuffle off to work every day, minting words instead of diamonds. Stanwyck’s Snow White soon wins them all over just like her fairy tale character won over her brood. Best of all, Prince Charming is already in the house, with Gary Cooper as a conveniently much younger and dishy professor that Sugarpuss falls for “because he’s the kind of guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk,” and she tells him to look at her as “just another apple.” Still doubtful? Take a look at the movie listed on the marquee as Cooper writes down a newsboy’s slang: none other than Snow White And The Seven Dwarves. [Gwen Ihnat]

6. The Red Shoes: Black Swan (2010)

“The Red Shoes” is one of those fairy tales that stuns you with its cruelty: An orphan girl so loves her new red shoes that she wears them to church, an impropriety that leads to them being cursed to dance of their own volition forever. This torture is so excruciating in its details that the young girl voluntarily has her feet amputated. Even then, the shoes continue to dance, taunting the girl (now walking on wooden feet) by preventing her from returning to church, where she might repent at last. It’s a parable against vanity through the lens of an obsessed dancer, themes that Darren Aronofsky flipped in 2010’s Black Swan. Appropriately enough, given the source material, it’s the director’s most directly “horror” film, although, like many of his movies, it views a person’s real-world obsession through the lens of their own psychology. Here, Natalie Portman’s Nina is driven slowly mad, not by a quest for genius (Pi), fame (Requiem For A Dream), or knowledge (The Fountain), but, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, a quest for beauty, particularly as achieved through a corporeal performance. This results in all manner of Cronenbergian body transformation and Polanski-esque surreality, and it is, perhaps, a type of vanity. But Aronofsky finds redemption in Nina’s tragic ending—her final performance is a delirious illustration of beauty achieved at any cost. “It was perfect,” she says as the film fades to white. Aronofsky asks what would happen if the tortured girl of “The Red Shoes” happened to enjoy the torture, in the process making a disturbing fairy tale even more macabre—and, in its way, beautiful. [Clayton Purdom]

7. The Little Mermaid: The Lure (2017)

Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale about an undersea nymph who secretly longs to become human gets a wildly imaginative update in filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s genre-bending horror/musical hybrid The Lure. There are a few key differences: In this version of the story, there are two mermaids, sisters Silver and Gold, and their interest in humans is as bloodthirsty as it is romantic. But the consequences for losing their long, fishy tails are the same. Becoming wholly human means giving up a mermaid’s most valuable asset—her otherworldly voice—which here the sisters use both to make their living as nightclub singers in a fantasia of late Communist-era Poland and to lure unsuspecting men to their deaths. In the film, Silver decides that being with the bass player in their band is worth the sacrifice, only to face the same curse that haunts the Little Mermaid in Andersen’s story: Allow the man you love to marry another and turn into sea foam, floating away on the aqua-green tide. [Katie Rife]

8. Pinocchio: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi heartstring tugger doesn’t shy away from its allusions to literature’s most famous marionette, with mecha moppet David (Haley Joel Osment) literally inspired by a reading of Carlo Collodi’s classic novel. That comes courtesy of his “mother,” Maura (Frances O’Connor), whose eventual rejection inspires David’s quest to make himself into a real boy. Armed with nothing but a robot teddy bear to serve as his makeshift Jiminy Cricket, David ambles his way across the blighted landscape of 22nd-century America, stumbling into various misadventures and seeking the Blue Fairy he thinks can turn his plastic body into flesh and blood. Along the way, he picks up a hedonism-loving companion (Jude Law’s good-natured sex-bot Gigolo Joe), gets briefly sidetracked by a city full of earthly pleasures, and finally follows in his predecessor’s footsteps by hurling himself into the sea. But instead of discovering the fearsome Monstro (or the novel’s Terrible Dogfish), David finds the Blue Fairy herself (Meryl Streep). It takes a minute—i.e., 2,000 years, the extinction of humanity, and the rise of sentient machines—but the fairy finally grants David his wish. Like all the best fairy tale benefactors, though, she gives him not what he asks for, but what he really wants: one last day basking in Maura’s maternal love. [William Hughes]

9. Goldilocks And The Three Bears: Poison Ivy (1992)

Ivy (Drew Barrymore)’s overtaking of the Cooper family only differs from the bears’ story because they’re around while she’s doing it. Sylvie (Sara Gilbert) brings her new friend home with her, who proceeds to take over the house as well as Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear in turn. Ivy first wins over Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) by revealing her own humble upbringing. Ivy then sets her sights on Georgie’s husband, Darryl (Tom Skerritt), who is apparently helpless when faced with an amorous adolescent girl. As Ivy moves through various beds in the house (and even invades the family sports car), it’s up to Baby Bear Sylvie to call her out, even as Ivy still wants them all to be a family. Like the Goldilocks story, Poison Ivy is a cautionary tale against territorial home invaders. [Gwen Ihnat]