Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 4

While I have made brief references to a number of different films which encompass a majority of the elements, it is the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Legend which encapsulates the five elements perfectly.

Although the original theatrical release still dealt with issues of gender and sexuality through the temptation of Princess Lily by the Lord of Darkness, the director’s cut includes a scene between Jack and Lily early in the film suffused with a sort of innocent innuendo that hints at awakening sexuality. It is Lily’s virginal aspect that allows her to entice a unicorn, to betray Jack’s trust without losing his love. Later, it is her awakening sexuality which allows her to play coy with her captor, the Lord of Darkness and lull him into her confidence.

The element of good vs. evil is clear cut, realized with the rich imagery of the unicorns, sacred beasts that embody goodness; as Jack says, “as long as they roam the earth, evil can never harm the pure of heart…they express only love and laughter. Dark thoughts are unknown to them”. They are held in contrast to the Lord of Darkness, given the form of the classic red devil with massive horns and cloven hooves. These images are iconic, but Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness gives his evil a level of depth that transcends caricature. The struggle between these two forces is portrayed through the various desires and temptations of Princess Lily, whose strong, independent will results in the death of one of the unicorns as well as the emancipation of the other at the expense of her own safety.

Both Jack and Lily are meritorious individuals in their own right; Lily, through her noble, headstrong manner which makes her a match for the Lord of Darkness’ wiles, and Jack in more traditionally virtuous practices. Although he is not directly responsible for the death of the male unicorn, he accepts the mantle of champion to set things right. When he is enticed by Oona, a willful forest fairy who demands a kiss in return for freeing Jack and his companions, he refuses rather than betray his love for Lily. Both the characters survive their challenges and overcome their obstacles because of their integrity.

The entire production is magical; beams of sunlight shine through the boughs of massive, ancient trees in a forest that is filled with beauty and mystery. There are goblins and dwarves, an elf named Honeythorn Gump, a dancing black dress, a swamp hag named Meg Mucklebones and a pair of demon cooks. Few films have achieved such a level of visual enchantment, owing largely to the fact that the entire film was shot on a massive soundstage instead of actual locations. And when Lily asks at the end, “was it all a dream?” Jack can only reply, “you’re safe now”.

There are a number of transformations in the film, the first one of the Edenic world’s verdant green landscape being covered in an endless winter. We see Jack, hero of the tale, transformed from wild-boy of the forest to knight in literally shining armor, and his damsel in distress Lily go from demure princess dressed in white and gold to a vampish gothic queen in a low cut dress as black as midnight. Yet the greatest transformation takes place when Jack restores Lily from the dark spell she is under at the film’s conclusion.

“So many terrible things happened,” Lily reflects, “and something about you.”

“What’s that?” Jack asks.

“You belong here,” Lily replies. “You’re my prince.”

“I’m only Jack,” he tells her, before they embrace in a deep and grown up kiss.

In the original theatrical release, there is an implication that Lily stays with Jack in the magic forest, but in the director’s cut she departs, asking “can I come again tomorrow?” There is a hint, that as Jack waves goodbye to Lily, and then to his magical companions, that the transformation has been one of growing up. Their mutual transformation is much like that of Kai and Gerda’s; they look the same as they did at the start of the film, but they are no longer children. No longer innocent. “I will miss you” Jack tells Honeythorn Gump.

“But don’t forget us,” the elf tells him.

“Never,” Jack replies.

It is clear from the wide variety of films that utilize fairy tale motifs and elements that we have not forgotten our traveling companions in the perilous realm. Nevertheless, it does a disservice to the tradition of the fairy tale to include any film which deals with gender and sexuality, good struggling against evil, or any of the five elements alone. Rather, these five elements must be measured against the tradition they inhabit, and then evaluated, not as means to an end, but rather parts of a whole.

To put it another way, for a film to be categorized within the fairy tale genre, it must not only possess a number of these five elements, but those five elements should be woven together in such a fashion that to speak about one is to make reference to another, as is the case with Lily’s sexual transformation from pure virgin to sexually aware vamp, a scene which plays with all of the listed elements. When a film utilizes all five of these elements, we will then be able to recognize it for what it is; a fairy tale whether the characters be elves and faeries inhabiting a dark wood or princes masquerading as rich men, and the little ash girls posing as street walkers in downtown L.A.

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