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What We Can Learn from Maleficent and other Fairy Tales

Reimagined “Once upon a time” flicks offer big time insight into our current lives


by Austin O’Connor

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Maleficent, Disney’s twisty revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty starring Angelina Jolie as the titular wicked witch, flies into movie theaters this weekend. The much-promoted film is just Hollywood’s latest reimagining of a classic fairy tale. Stories that begin with “Once upon a time” often turn out to be reliably popular—and eternally relevant, even to adults. Thousands of screenwriters churn out scripts for TV and movies everyday, and yet each year the likes of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm pad their IMDB resumes via reinventions of their centuries-old works (both Perrault and the Grimms notch another credit with Maleficent).

Is the lesson that Hollywood is scared of originality and out of ideas, or that good stories never get old? Maybe it’s both. What’s definitely true is that fairy tales have managed to stay relevant through the ages. Here’s a list of notable fairy tale adaptations for screens big and small—and the life lessons each reimagining can teach us.

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Once upon a time: 55 years ago—long before Jolie donned those scary horns (and before hubby Brad Pitt took a punch in the face while heading into the Maleficent premiere this week), Disney released its original animated retelling of the famous fairy tale. The twist: The movie’s initial box office performance was such a disappointment that it caused Walt Disney to swear off fairy tales forever. Uncle Walt’s decision to move away from fairy tales brought a precipitous decline in the studio’s animated film quality. Disney’s animated output largely languished until 1989 when The Little Mermaid—its first fairy tale based film since Sleeping Beauty—ushered in a new eraof Disney dominance.                                                                                          

The ending: Happy. Despite its box office bust, the home video success of Sleeping Beauty established its place among Disney’s classics.                                                                                

The lesson: Success doesn’t often come easily—or quickly.


Snow White and The Huntsman/Mirror Mirror

Once upon a time: In 2012, two big-budget adaptations of Snow White were released to theaters around the world within three months of each other. The twist: Though both films were glitzy productions featuring serious star wattage(Julia Roberts played the villainous Queen in Mirror Mirror, while Huntsman featured Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart) critics treated both pictures like poison apples. Audiences generally agreed—though neither performed disastrously, they weren’t exactly big hits, either.

The ending: Unhappy. Huntsman is now remembered more for the scandalous saffair between Stewart and her much older director, and the only thing MirrorMirror reflected was Roberts’ diminishing drawing power.

The lesson: Sure things aren’t always as sure as we think. Shoot for success, but be prepared for failure.

See also: Lessons Learned from the Movies

Once Upon a Time Once upon a time: In 2011, two ambitious new hour-long television series, both based on characters from fairy tales, debuted within one week of each other. The twist: Both shows emerged as bona fide hits—and both will begin their fourth seasons in the fall (Grimm airs on NBC, OUAT on ABC). The ending: Happy. Beyond the obvious similarity that both shows are rooted inwell-known fairy tales, they’re actually quite different. Grimm is really a policeprocedural drama in sheep’s clothing—a CSI-style human drama with fairy talemonsters—while Once Upon a Time creates its own fairy tale kingdom (albeit oneset in coastal Maine) and plays like an all-star mash up of fairy tale characters andtropes. The lesson: A creative idea, executed properly, will win out.  


Once upon a time: For the 2013 holiday season, Disney released an animated musical version of Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen The twist: In a move away from Disney tradition, Frozen featured not one but two princesses as heroines—sisters Elsa and Anna—and not a single traditional villain. Oh sure, there was duplicity and treachery, but Frozen lacked an evil character on the scale of Maleficent or the Wicked Stepmother. 

The ending: Happy. Very happy. The decision to go villainless—and to discard early drafts of the script in which Elsa was the villain—paid off more handsomely than a Prince Charming. To date, Frozen has grossed more than a billion dollars at the box office, making it the most successful animated film of all time. It also won two Academy Awards, including Best Original Song for the showstopper “Let It Go.”

The lesson: Be adaptable. Your idea may stray far from its original concept. This can be a good thing. Don’t be afraid to break from tradition.

See also: The Internship: Career Change Hollywood-Style

Into The Woods

Once upon a time: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical that interweaves several Grimm fairy tales and brings dark undertones to the surface premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ran for two years. In 2002, a new version of the show won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. 

The twist: After years of development, a movie version of Into The Woods is set for release this December. The film features a starry cast including Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Tracey Ullman and is directed by Rob Marshal, whose 2002 film version of Chicago is the last musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The ending: Still to be written, but a happy one seems all but assured. With the recent success of fairy tale based stories and musicals, the movie version of Into the Woods appears to be arriving at the perfect time.

The lesson: Timing is everything. Execute your idea at the right moment—through planning or luck—and give yourself a jumpstart on success.

Photo Credits:

Maleficent (x2) : Frank Connor/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/EverettCollection