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The Red Shoes skips the fairy tale’s severed feet and meditates on love instead

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has us thinking about fractured fairy tales.

The Red Shoes (1948)
Like most fairy tales—at least in their original, undiluted form—Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” takes a remarkably bleak view of life. Not even Disney could fashion a charmer from this story: A vain little girl recieves a fancy pair of red shoes, which she wears everywhere, including church. The shoes then become permanently attached to her feet and start dancing of their own accord, uncontrollably, nonstop. Ultimately, the agony becomes so great that she asks an executioner to chop her feet off at the ankles… but even this drastic step doesn’t solve the problem, as her disembodied feet, still hoofin’ up a storm, block her from entering the church. There’s a happy ending in which the girl finally repents her narcissism and is forgiven, but overall, the tale reads like a treatment for a Saw prequel.

Rather than an animated film, though it inspired a dead-serious, impossibly gorgeous 1948 meditation on love and obsession by the great English team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Using Andersen’s fairy tale on multiple levels, The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as an ambitious ballet dancer torn between her passion for a composer (Marius Goring)—who’s written a ballet of The Red Shoes specifically for her—and her desire for artistic immortality, thanks to the machinations of an impresario (Anton Walbrook) who forces her to choose one or the other. No limbs are amputated, but the film’s powerful depth of feeling is reflected in some of the most vibrant color cinematography (courtesy of Jack Cardiff) in cinema history, and Powell and Pressburger fashion their own, much bleaker ending. Sequences from the Red Shoes ballet, meanwhile, pay brilliant homage to the movie’s source of inspiration, allowing viewers to note the twisted ways in which it bleeds into the backstage story. 

Availability: Criterion has a features-packed special edition on DVD and Blu-ray.