Best Live-Action Fairy Tale Movies That Aren’t Disney

There is no shortage of reasons to not like Disney’s live-action remakes, as they’re part of a larger negative trend in Hollywood. Their moral posturing in relation to the originals usually backfires. The very idea of such repetition was anathema to Walt Disney. Their existence means we live in a world where you have to specify which Lion King you’re talking about, and there are people who don’t immediately know which one you mean when you say: “the good one.”

But another objection, with repercussions beyond the broken hearts of lapsed Disneyites, is the oxygen they take away from fresh adaptations. Many of the fairy tales Disney has produced through animation, and then live-action, are centuries to millennia-old, passing through myriad interpretations. The cartoon features by Walt Disney and his successors are among the most well-known. In some cases, they are seen as definitive. And if we are being fair to the remakes, they are also valid efforts at adapting these stories. But they are alternate takes on the Disney version, a self-imposed limitation. However you feel about, say, the upcoming remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, there are other interpretations possible, like Sofia Coppola’s aborted effort. But with how much of a worldwide conglomerate Disney has become, what chance does any fresh approach have in getting a comparable degree of exposure?

To do our part in improving that exposure, here are just a few live-action adaptations of classic fairy tales from all around the world that make for mighty fine alternative viewing to Disney’s straightforward retreads.

RELATED: ‘Beauty and the Beast’: The Problem with Disney’s Live-Action Remake Summed Up in One Scene



La Belle et la Bête (1946, France)

Image via Criterion

Variants on the idea of a beauty in a love affair with a beast are universal, but in the realm of popular written fairy tales, the French version written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is the best known. It’s the version Disney adapted for their 1991 musical smash, and the version renowned poet Jean Cocteau made into La Belle et la Bête. Before Disney’s, this was considered the definitive interpretation of “Beauty and the Beast” on film. Cocteau has been named part of the “avant-garde,” and his film work can be more concerned with poetic expression and imagery than plot. La Belle et la Bête offers long corridors lit by disembodied hands, busts with glowing eyes flanking a fireplace, moving shadows, smoke pouring from the hands of the beast after a fresh kill, and extended sequences of slow motion, trick photography, and music employed to create an ambiance of enchantment. And yet the narrative is still easily accessible, and much more faithful to Beaumont’s writing than Disney. La Belle et la Bête has influenced everyone from Ridley Scott in Legend to Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and its smoke-and-mirrors fantasy of “childlike sympathy” (produced amidst great shortages after World War II) has more magic than nearly any overproduced digital fairyland of today.

Panna A Netvor (1978, Czech)

Image via Ústřední půjčovna filmů

Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” was written in her native French, but fairy tales travel well across cultures. A good number of fantasy films were made in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, among them director Juraj Herz’s interpretation of Beaumont in Panna A Netvor. In the realm of make-up, the film deserves kudos for branching out from the feline approach usually taken for the beast (Netvor), as Herz gave him a fierce hawk’s head. He also cursed Netvor with a demonic inner voice driving him on to kill the beauty (Julie) and himself. This is a blacker take than Beaumont’s or Cocteau’s. Netvor’s castle is a rotted and shadow-cloaked ruin in the forest haunted by cherubs, Julie’s bed therein becomes a coffin, and human blood stains the beast’s wings. Against these gothic flourishes, Julie explores Netvor’s past through her dreams, shot in delicate rose gold tones. It isn’t the most energetically paced film, but if you like a shot of horror in your fantasy, Panna A Netvor balances both elements beautifully.

Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973, Czech/Germany)

Image via Ústřední půjčovna filmů

“Cinderella” is another widespread tale, and many variants do without the fairy godmother and glass slippers made famous by Charles Perrault’s telling. The Czech writer Božena Němcová delivered magic to Cinderella through a gift of three hazelnuts. During the 1970s fairy tale wave in Czechoslovakia, director Václav Vorlíček adapted Němcová in Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku in Czech) as a co-production with East Germany. Along with the hazelnuts, this film mixes up the tradition by playing Cinderella as a trickster. She appears to her prince in various guises, vexing and intriguing him in turns, and when she makes her veiled entrance to the ball, she sets a riddle of her identity for him to puzzle out as a condition of winning her hand. This cat-and-mouse game directed by the mouse takes up more of the film than any conflict with the stepmother, and Libuše Šafránková brings a sly charm to her performance as Cinderella. Another boon for this production is the gorgeous wintertime setting as every exterior is blanketed in pristine snow. This may account for the film’s status as a Christmas classic in many European countries. A one-time lapse in yuletide broadcasting in Norway allegedly led to protests!

The Slipper and the Rose (1976, UK)

Image via Universal

The Slipper and the Rose shares the same Charles Perrault source material as Disney, and its many songs were written by Walt’s favorite songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman. Given that, you might expect overt nods and stylistic debts to the 1950 cartoon. But The Slipper and the Rose is very much its own production. The Shermans, who also co-wrote the screenplay, delivered an ambitious score more akin to 1950s Broadway than the music of Walt’s pictures, and all the fairy godmother’s magic is underplayed to charming effect. In giving the prince a name (Edward) and an internal conflict (should marriage be out of love or duty?) the film even anticipates the expansions made in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Disney remake. Edward’s struggles are given greater attention here, arguably more than Cinderella herself. Its 143-minute run time can sometimes beg the question of whether every song is necessary. But the interpretation of the romance is worth it, and the lush widescreen photography offers an immediate visual magic to complement the fairy godmother’s subtle spells.

Peau d’âne (1970, France)

Image via Cinema International Corporation 

« Donkeyskin » was written by Charles Perrault as a distinct story from « Cinderella, » but the two are close cousins. There’s a fairy godmother, a prince seeking a princess whose name he doesn’t know, and a magic object that will reveal her true identity. Writer-director Jacques Demy‘s spin on the tale, 1970’s Donkey Skin, retains all of these elements, injects a few musical numbers, and harkens back to Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête with the casting of Jean Marais. But Donkey Skin has a magic all on its own.

There’s a sly playfulness to the script, most exemplified in the character of the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig) and her casual grudge against the king (Marais). As the titular princess, Catherine Deneuve isn’t quite the trickster that Libuše Šafránková’s Cinderella was, but she does have her clever schemes and a fun song to liven up a baking sequence. But the most striking feature of Donkey Skin is how much enchantment can be conveyed just through color. Anyone tired of the underlit and desaturated look given to today’s fantasy films can find a welcome antidote in the bright, bold, and rich palette used here.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940, UK)

Image via Criterion

This entry is kind of a cheat. The Thief of Bagdad is a pastiche of One Thousand and One Nights rather than an adaptation of any one tale. Still, elements from “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp” feature prominently: the hero Abu (Sabu) is an incorrigible ne’er-do-well at the movie’s start, the evil vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) possesses the same sorcerer’s power as “Aladdin’s” villain, and there is a wish-granting genie sprung from a lamp. Disney actually bought the remake rights to The Thief of Bagdad in the early ’90s and used elements of it in developing their own Aladdin. But Thief is also one of the unsung gems of fantasy cinema in its own right. Producer Alexander Korda’s exacting but mercurial demands ran through six directors on the project, and yet it’s narratively and visually cohesive. It innovated the blue screen process for special effects. Driving it all on is the stirring music of Miklós Rózsa. If you come by this film through the Criterion Channel, put on the commentary track, because you’ll be treated to Thief of Bagdad superfan Francis Ford Coppola belting out the film’s catchy recurring song, “I Want To Be A Sailor.”

Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp (1957, India)

Image via Jai Sakthi Pictures

“Aladdin” has proven a popular subject for film in India. A cursory search turns up seventeen movies that draw from the tale in one way or another, many of them produced simultaneously in multiple languages. One such production was Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp from 1957, made in Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil. It’s among the more faithful adaptations to the original story, including such oft-discarded elements as the magic ring and Aladdin’s mother. It was also early to adopt the idea of setting the genie free, though he isn’t given much of a personality. The special effects of Alladin might not be as much of a breakthrough as Thief of Bagdad’s were, and its fantasy elements may be less spectacular. But there’s an endearing quality to the theatrical sets and miniatures featured throughout the film, and splashy musical numbers keep things lively.

Arabian Adventure (1979, UK)

Image via Associated Film Distribution 

Like The Thief of Bagdad, Arabian Adventure is a mash-up of elements from One Thousand and One Nights, though the « Aladdin » elements aren’t as apparent here. The genie comes and goes, and the hero is a bit on the bland side. But any film featuring Christopher Lee as the chief villain is worth a look, and Arabian Adventure packs cameos by Peter Cushing and Mickey Rooney to boot. It also has sweeping music, a charming simplicity in story, and delightfully old-fashioned effects. The highlight? A dogfight between heroes and villains on multiple magic carpets, largely rendered through miniature puppets and a gorgeous city model. Is it slickly rendered compared to digital work? No. But it’s unique, it’s fun, it’s the kind of thing any adventure-seeking child would love a chance to be part of, and by being made out of physical pieces, it has an attainability missing in overproduced effects work.

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1942, USA)

Image via United Artists

No, The Jungle Book isn’t a fairy tale. But before Walt got his hands on the story, or the corporate monster of his company remade that version in 2016, it made its way onto film through Alexander Korda’s independent 1942 production, directed by his brother Zoltan Korda. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was something of a Thief reunion, reteaming the Kordas with their star Sabu and composer Miklós Rózsa. Sabu always brought great charisma to his roles, and he makes for a fine Mowgli. This version is a little disappointing in its rather limited exploration of Mowgli’s connections to the animals in the jungle. That element is present and well done enough that it begs for more. Instead, a significant chunk of the plot is given over to a treasure hunt by unscrupulous villagers. But this in itself is a fun (if dark) tale of greed. The brothers Korda apparently fought over how best to adapt Kipling to the screen, but in spite of the family tension and some missed opportunities, the film is a fine Technicolor adventure.

Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009, China)

Image via Starlight International Media Group

Among the arguments made for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan was that it would boast a greater level of “cultural accuracy” and a “more grounded, realistic” world. The film ended up receiving some fierce criticism for its handling of cultural matters inside and outside China, and its (relatively) realistic approach was redundant. Mulan: Rise of a Warrior had already claimed that cinematic territory. There’s less punchy color in Jingle Ma’s 2009 film than Disney’s 2020 effort, but plenty of striking design and impressive battle choreography. It’s also a much more sprawling narrative, following Mulan through a protracted multiyear military campaign that wins her a great reputation and power, but claims heartbreak and a bittersweet ending as the price. It’s not for kids, and it’s not for special effects aficionados, either. The film largely keeps things practical and straightforward.

Peter Pan (2003, USA)

Image via Universal Pictures 

Frankly, none of the straight adaptations of J. M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan done on film match the title character as described in the book and play. It’s hard to fully buy into the idea of the boy who never grew up when he’s always cast as a lad who’s rounded the turn into adolescence. But if Peter is a little too old and a little too tormented by his feelings for Wendy in P. J. Hogan‘s 2003 adaptation, Jeremy Sumpter‘s performance still has a cocky charm that suits the character. There’s plenty else to recommend this version to first-time viewers too. Not even Disney’s cartoon was more successful than Hogan’s film at making Neverland seem like the place of a child’s imagination. James Netwon Howard‘s score, particularly his theme for the childrens’ flight from London, is delightful. Sumpter is well-supported by Rachel Hurd-Wood‘s Wendy and the Lost Boys ensemble. And Jason Isaacs is as perfect a piece of casting for the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook as you could ask for.

Malá mořská víla (1976, Czech)

Image via Ustredni Pujcovna Filmu

It’s not easy to make films set under the water, and it was even tougher in the days before CGI. Director Karel Kachyňa‘s solution when he adapted Hans Christian Andersen‘s « The Little Mermaid » was to not even try any aquatic photography. The undersea kingdom of Malá mořská víla is realized through eerie, deliberately artificial sets, enhanced by blue-green lights and strange hair and make-up for the mermaids. The look suits an interpretation that comes across as more grim and melancholy than the original story. Miroslava Šafránková plays the little mermaid as curious but haunted, the rituals of her people are unsettling to watch, and the ending denies the little mermaid even the bittersweet victory Andersen gave her. It’s a sad film, but beautifully so.

Rusalochka (1976, Russia)

Image via Gorky Film Studio 

By a strange whim of chance, 1976 saw two different adaptations of « The Little Mermaid » in Europe that were made independently of one other. Russia’s Rusalochka, directed by Vladimir Bychkov, restages the story in the medieval period and makes significant detours from Andersen. The mermaid (Viktoriya Novikova) has a friend and ally on land, the wandering Sulpitius (Valentin Nikulin). His bargaining gets the price of the mermaid’s legs down from her voice to her green hair. There are market fairs, witch burnings, jousts, duels, and musical numbers to fill out the runtime, and a more extensive love triangle between the mermaid, the prince, and a rather sympathetic rival princess. At times, the mermaid herself gets lost amidst all these flourishes. But all the new pieces added to Rusalochka do come together in the end to offer an ethereal interpretation of Andersen’s finale.

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