Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to fairytale land we go

Been there!
Once upon a time, after wandering around a medieval town for several days, someone thought that it would be a good idea to binge on fairytale films.

Easter, of course, offered the perfect opportunity to indulge, so a list was prepared, cushions plumped and the cupboard checked for appropriate amounts of nettle tisane.

In the event, the list was overtaken at the start by the discovery that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) was on the telly.

Fascinated by the idea of updating fairy and folk tales – or to be more specific, allowing them a space in which to continue evolving – this seemed like a perfect place to begin.

In the event, that perfection was in illustrating how to get things wrong.

A US-German collaboration, written and directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, it brought together creative talent from those countries, plus the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Iceland, Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and more.

The idea of the children growing up and becoming witch hunters is fine – and full of potential. It might be over egging the pudding a bit to make the adult Hansel a diabetic as a result of the witch’s attempts to fatten him for the oven, but we can let that slide.

Tarantino. Without the laughs.
However, it’s all over the place in terms of any sense of time and place. Poor old Augsburg is a specifically-named location in the story – presumably because it’s nicely medieval – which is then screwed all over by a sort of semi-steampunk aesthetic that’s at least a century too late (and I like steampunk). 

The director apparently thought the weapons should look as though H&G had made them. They dont. Black leather dusters are seriously cool – but out of place here.

Fairy tales can be seriously dark and violent – I am entirely happy with both – but this uses violence gratuitously and in a way that makes you think it’s actually trying to be a Tarantino film. Without any of the wit.

There are other irritants.

The international nature of the cast is fine – but then why have Brit actor Gemma Arterton, who plays the adult Gretel, using a faux American accent?

And oh god the constant pronunciation of Hansel with a long, American ‘A’, grated almost to the point of a foot going through the telly.

I was close to shouting about ‘cultural appropriation!’ – and that’s something I consider to be a bonkers idea, since it assumes cultures come in locked geographic/ethnic pigeon holes that have never mixed and informed each other (until now) and never should.

So, just to be clear, I hated it.

Still, if you never experience dross occasionally, how can you judge quality?

Anyway, next up was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a 1962 MGM affair, filmed in Rothenburg ob der Tauber itself (and with a glance at Neuschwanstein), so enabling a spot of ‘been there!’ film tourism.

Brothers Grimm – with Rothenburg and skewed perspective
It’s a pleasant enough film about the brothers – and interestingly, the four tales that were included were not the most famous ones – but it suffers from having been filmed in Cinerama, which turns the television screen into a sort of triptych, warping some of the perspective.

In contrast to Hansel and Gretel, the international cast is allowed to use whatever accents they’re used to: that the brothers (Lawrence Harvey and Karlheinz Böhm) speak in received English and with a German accent is not remotely problematic.

Not sensational, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Next up was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - a film I haven’t sat down to watch from A to Z for donkey’s years, and one that was, to be perfectly honest, rather shoehorned into this selection because its locations included, err, Neuschwanstein and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

But actually, given the lack of any real character development of authot Ian Fleming, it works rather well as a fairy tale, since these are full, after all, of types, rather than 3D characters.

That’s not to say I don’t like it – in fact, a proper viewing restored my pleasure in it and reminded me that the dire matteing on the flying sequences should not be allowed to overshadow what is, by and large, a delightful film.

Gert Fröbe, Lionel Jefferies and mad scientists (inc Max Wall)
This is another international cast, but thankfully, Dick van Dyke was not, on this occasion, told to try any accent but his own. And it doesn’t matter that he has a soft American burr, while the rest of his family have pretty cut-glass accents.

Gert Fröbe is wonderful as Baron Bombast, James Robertson Justice is, well, James Robertson Justice (his real-life story would probably astonish you – look it up), Robert Helpmann is fabulously creepy as the Childcatcher, Lionel Jefferies is a super Grandpa and Benny Hill illustrates the point that comics can turn in serious performances.

And so what could possibly follow that?

Well, one of the things I’d been tempted into getting was 2014’s Maleficent - although I’d also been tempted to buy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters on the grounds that it looked a really interesting take on the story, as recorded by the Grimms.

I put it off for a few days after the H&G experience, but eventually decided that it had to be watched.

And I’m very glad I did. It’s a fascinating take on Sleeping Beauty – so much so that there is a great deal of material around involving really very serious discussion of its themes.

Angelina Jolie – and a raven!
When the fairy Maleficent has her wings cut off, it can be viewed as a metaphor for rape – the writer and star, Angelina Jolie, certainly thought so, so it’s not just a viewer’s interpretation.

But the problems begin if you start reading the rest of it too literally from that point. I saw one writer complaining that, while the rape metaphor was clear, the subsequent story made it appear that the only way for a female rape victim to recover was by enacting revenge.

It’s fine to make the comparison, but this is also a fairy/folk tale – and indeed, such a reading of the film rather simplifies what actually does happen and how the characters develop.

And if you want to look for themes in it, then one of the others is the question of a nature-based world v an imperialistic/capitalistic one. This was certainly something that occurred to me when watching it (and it’s not a unique observation), but if you try to take it too far, then you’d do your head in.

It’s sumptuous to look at – the CGI works so well; conjuring worlds, but never detracting from the human.

Jolie is really in fine form – it’s a cracking performance. And she turns in a perfectly comfortable non-American accent (a tad softer than as that other very modern fairy tale character, Lara Croft).

Actually, accents are an interesting point here – we have a mixture between English and Scottish in an international cast. And no, it’s not one that comes down on simple good v bad lines. But directing actors to use specific accents here makes a kind of consistent sense, whereas the issue in H&G does not.

German vultures. No, seriously.
After that, I happened upon Channel 5 showing Disney’s iconic 1937 Snow White, which I haven’t seen in absolutely decades (it was one of the first films I ever saw, on a cinema re-release).

The plot is maintained pretty straightforwardly from the Grimms – one of the major changes is in giving the dwarves names and personalities; the character drawing is better than the late ’70s era Disney and the backgrounds are beautiful and delicate, while the witch is still, I’m sure, terrifying for young children.

The only thing I found myself muttering about was the presence of two vultures: there are no vultures in Germany – and it grates a tad. 

Mind, crows or ravens dont have yellow legs and beaks either – well, not in Europe, at any rate.

But it remains a standard of the fairy tale film genre and formed a perfect addition to the list I had set out to consider.

There are still two definite films to come from that original list but for the time being, that’s a good chunk of fairytale viewing under my belt.

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