Fairy tales are like foundational myths. They’re among the first stories that were ever told, and they’re the stories that loom largest over culture today. Even stories that may not appear to have much to do with fairy tales were likely influenced by them in one way or another. Whether it’s a central romance or the introduction of magic, fairy tales are everywhere in the stories we love.
Of course, some stories make more specific references to the worlds created by fairy tales. In recent years, many movies have begun to create explicit riffs on popular fairy tales. Whether they rework the story of one fairy tale or combine elements from several, each of these films uses the fantastical worlds that children fall in love with for a specific reason, and reminds audiences how powerful these simple stories can be. Here are the 15 Best Updated Versions Of Classic Fairy Tale Movies.
Maleficent is a look at one of the most terrifying figures to ever enter a Disney property. The villainous queen from Sleeping Beauty eventually turns into a dragon, and her evil seems unquestionable from the film’s opening moments. Of course, the point of Maleficent is to suggest that every story has two sides, and Maleficent herself may not be the evil being we’ve been made to believe she is.
Early in the film, we learn that Maleficent used to be one of her kingdom’s fiercest defenders. Of course, we know from the animated film that she doesn’t stay that way. Eventually, she’s betrayed in a manner that makes her determined to take revenge. Although she eventually realizes that Aurora is the key to saving the kingdom she once protected, this is long after she’s cursed the child.
This fairly complicated plot works to confuse our understanding of Maleficent as pure evil. Instead, it becomes clear that she’s angry and impulsive, but has better intentions than most.
At its core, the 2015 adaptation of Cinderella tells a similar tale to the one audiences were already familiar with. Here’s a young girl who’s woefully mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters; a girl who ultimately discovers that her good heart is enough to bring her all the happiness she’ll ever need. Even as we get a new angle on Cinderella’s story, we also get a better sense of what her stepmother, played by a wonderful Cate Blanchett, is feeling.
The beauty of this adaptation is that it has a certain generosity about it. Even the most cruel characters are given some time to develop, and it makes the story’s conclusion all the more satisfying. The story of Cinderella, isn’t terribly complicated, and the film wisely chooses to keep things simple. It refocuses on its core ideas, reminding audiences that being kind and genuine is often a reward in and of itself.
Of course, leave it to Steven Spielberg to remind audiences that life is most beautiful when you’re a child. Hook is filled with the wonder of a cynical adult rediscovering the joys of his own youth, and works even without its many references to the original Peter Pan. If that original film is a story about never growing up, then Hook is about reminding us that growing up happens to everyone, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose touch with the person we used to be.
12 Oz The Great and Powerful
Although Wicked may be the most significant riff on The Wizard of Oz, it’s one that has yet to be committed to the big screen, perhaps understandably. In the meantime, we have Oz The Great and Powerful, which does a respectable job establishing how the titular wizard came to be in Oz in the first place. This origin is another reminder of the way stories are shaped by the people who tell them.
Actually a con man turned magician, the wizard is forced to take on responsibilities that are much larger than any he might have anticipated. Although he’s initially reluctant to accept a life in Oz, he ultimately discovers that he may be able to do some good for its citizens. The film shows us the power that even Oz’s illusion can have over people, and provides a potent lesson about the role belief plays in every person’s life. After all, Oz’s story isn’t totally true, but if he can help people, that might not matter.
Rapunzel is a foundational fairy tale, but it can sometimes feel a bit strange and outdated. It’s for that reason that the people behind Tangled decided to give the film a more modern feel, one that’s made it feel relevant for modern audiences. Instead of suggesting that Rapunzel is in some way out of touch, audiences get a sense that she’s simply a child who hasn’t been allowed to expand her wings. She wants adventure, and she’s been hidden away from it all her life.
Of course, the film gives her plenty of thrills alongside a dashing thief, but what’s most impressive here is how much care is given to each of the film’s main characters. Rapunzel is charming, but can sometimes be brash as well, and Mother Gothel, who keeps her hidden in a tower, feels more real and compelling than most Disney villains are allowed to be.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney film without some wonderful music, which only makes Tangled all the more enjoyable.
10 Beauty and the Beast
2017’s Beauty and the Beast was huge success at the box office, and that’s not a shock. After all, the original Disney movie was the first animated feature to be nominated for best picture, and its legacy still stands today. 2017’s version provides it with some modern updates, including additions to the character of Belle that make her feel a bit more independent.
While the original Beauty and the Beast is an undeniably beautiful film, its message is a bit confusing because Belle is initially the Beast’s prisoner. In the new installment, that’s still the case, but it becomes clearer than ever that Belle is capable of thinking for herself.
Add in a few new songs, and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast manages to provide audiences with a truly moving and thoroughly joyful movie going experience. It may not be quite as good as its animated counterpart, but it’s quite a satisfying meal in its own right.
9 The Emperor's New Groove
Certainly one of the stranger entries on this list, The Emperor’s New Groove is a great example of Disney taking fairly sizable risks that largely pay off. Following a selfish emperor who is turned into a llama by a power-hungry adviser, the film is a riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Even as it updates on that classic story, The Emperor’s New Groove carefully humbles its central character by showing him a world that’s completely different from his own.
By the end of the film, Kuzco has learned to understand and empathize with other people’s struggles, and has become a much better ruler as a result. While this is ostensibly the lesson at the heart of the film, it may be most memorable for its brisk comedic sensibility. Many of the film’s best jokes run through Kronk, a minor side character and dolt who manages to get himself into all sorts of shenanigans over the course of the film’s run time.
The fact that the film manages to balance this hilarity with its message signals that Disney knew what they were doing.
8 The Princess and the Frog
The story behind The Princess and the Frog isn’t exactly new. It’s the story of a prince who is turned into a frog, and can only be turned back by the power of a true love’s kiss. At it’s core, it’s fairly familiar. Fortunately, The Princess and the Frog understood how aware its audience was of the central story, and decided to jazz things up. Set in the bayous of Louisiana, the film takes a decidedly modern approach to its story, with truly wondrous results.
Following Tiana, a waitress in the 1920s who dreams of owning her own restaurant before kissing a prince and becoming a frog, the film was met with a largely positive response. Several critics have cited it as a turning point for Disney that eventually led to their recent string of animated success stories.
More importantly, the film was a departure from many in the Disney canon in terms of the kind of music being performed and the kind of faces that largely populated the screen. It was a unique entry in the Disney canon, and worthwhile for that reason.
7 Into the Woods
Although it’s far from a perfect film, Into the Woods manages to take much of what made Stephen Sondheim’s musical great and translate to the screen. The story combines many of the most popular fairy tales into one story about how complicated real life is. The fairy tales we enjoyed as children were nice because they felt safe. These stories had happy endings, and we never had to give much thought to what happened afterward.
In Into the Woods, we come to understand that happy endings are a bit more complicated than these stories have led us to believe. This is a world where things can go wrong, and where people are truly complicated. Filled with magnificent songs, and buoyed by winning performances from Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, and Meryl Streep, Into the Woods is a hugely significant fairy tale riff, because it reminds us just how unrealistic many of those stories often are.
6 Black Swan
By far the darkest film on this list, Black Swan twists the story of Swan Lake into something truly terrifying, and manages to mesmerize audiences in the process. Telling the story of one dancer’s desire to play the White Swan, Black Swan delves into the horrors of becoming a ballerina, and the insecurity that can plague even the world’s best dancers.
While it’s true that the film takes several dark and surreal looks inside the mind of Nina, its central figure, it never loses sight of the horrors she’s being put through. Black Swan won Natalie Portman an Oscar, and deservedly so.
The film doesn’t function inside of a grounded reality, but it’s endlessly compelling nonetheless. Black Swan takes the story of Swan Lake and turns it into something deeply tragic and wonderfully melodramatic. It’s a fascinating portrait of one dancer’s addled mind.
It may seem a bit obvious, but it’s hard to make a list about fairy tale riffs without including Shrek. This animated film feels like an explicit attack on much of what has dominated Disney animation, but it also works as a riff on the very idea of fairy tales. While it may not seem all that original for a princess to fall in love with an ogre, Shrek suggests that true beauty has nothing to do with how you look. It’s rooted in something much deeper than that.
Of course, Shrek also comes jam-packed with references to pop culture properties, both inside and outside of the world of fairy tales-- so much so that it was instantly one of the most quotable films of 2001. Although some of its sequels may not have delivered on the promise of the first installment, it’s hard to argue that Shrek didn’t succeed at what it attempted. It skewered the entire genre of fairy tales, even as it reminded us what’s important about those stories.
Amy Adams is known for her extraordinary performances and her commitment to her work. While Enchanted might not seem like the ideal vehicle for these gifts, it turned out to be just the thing. The film stars Adams as a princess straight out of a cartoon (literally), who comes to the real world after being banished from her own, and gets stranded in New York City. The film gets quite a bit of mileage out of this premise, which allows it to be both fantastical and grounded in some sort of reality.
When Adams’ princess begins falling for the benefactor who takes her in, she’s forced to choose which world she wants to be a part of. Enchanted works well in part because of shining musical numbers and well-timed comedy, but its ability to merge the worlds of fantasy and reality are ultimately what makes it so appealing.
Enchanted argues that reality and fantasy are innately intertwined. Reality can often be wondrous, even as the wildest stories we tell can might not be as exciting as they seem.
Following up on 2011’s Tangled, Frozen was an even bigger success story for Disney, and was also a radical reinvention of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen.
Frozen is also an important shift for Disney, in part because it focuses on the love between siblings instead of any sort of traditional heterosexual love. The film acknowledges the difficulty that both Anna and Elsa had while they were growing up as orphaned sisters, but also shows us how powerful the bond between them really is.
Of course, Frozen is also buoyed by its outstanding soundtrack, filled with catchy pop tunes and a genuine breakout in the form of “Let it Go”, which four-year-olds still sing today. Frozen may have quickly morphed into a cash cow for Disney, but there are worse things for young girls to obsess over. This is a story that reminds them to be who they are, and that life isn’t always about landing the perfect boy.
2 Pan's Labyrinth
While it’s true that Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t make explicit references to any one fairy tale, it’s hard to argue that the film wasn’t heavily influenced by these kinds of stories. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth wisely mixes elements of fantasy with the harsh realities faced by a young girl during the conflict. The film is almost universally beloved, both because it’s immaculately crafted and because it feels truthful to every side of the story it tells.
The harshness of war is evident here, but it’s enhanced by the sense of strange wonder that the film embodies. The creatures that inhabit the underground world of our main character are beautiful to behold, and they’re an embodiment of the way a child’s imagination helps her deal with the horrors of war that are unfolding before her.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a perfectly crafted film that blends fantasy and reality to create something that’s entirely its own.
1 The Princess Bride
At its heart, The Princess Bride is a carefully calibrated reminder of what makes fairy tales so wonderful to begin with. It’s an epic tale of sweeping romance, filled to the brim with colorful side characters and wonderful detours. It’s impossible to forget Billy Crystal’s Max, who only has one scene, or Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, who delivers one of the most iconic lines in film’s history.
The Princess Bride is everything a great movie should be. It’s audacious and thrilling, hilarious and romantic, and an embodiment of everything that great fairy tales have been since we first heard them as children.
What's your favorite update on a classic fairy tale? Sound off in the comments!