As the holidays continue and Melbourne’s weather fluctuates as usual, I am stock-piling DVDs to get us through the holiday season. My focus is kids films adults can bear to watch, which meet my daughter’s key criterion.
When my brother, a lecturer in cinema studies, visited us from the UK last year, Tash sidled up to him and asked, ‘Uncle Julian, what’s your favourite kids movie?’
‘Funny you should ask,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about that the other day. It’s a film called Bugsy Malone.’
The 1976 Alan Parker film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio features kiddie gangsters armed with guns that fire cream pies. But Tash wasn’t satisfied.
‘Uncle Julian,’ she tried again, ‘what’s your favourite princess movie?’
To my surprise, he had one: The Princess Bride.
And so to the following princess movies adults can stand.
The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride (1987, PG), directed by Rob Reiner of Spinal Tap fame and based on a novel by William Goldman, opens with a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). The boy is unenthusiastic, but gives the grandfather the benefit of the doubt on learning the story has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” And it delivers on every front.
While Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright in her debut role) could be more helpful when under attack, she looks gorgeous and sustains the drama while all those around her — Cary Elwes as Westley/the Dread Pirate Robins, Chris Sarandon as the evil Prince Umperdinck, Billy Chrystal as Miracle Max — ham it up. The other note of pathos comes from the underrated Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, hell bent on avenging the death of his father by the sword of the six-fingered man (Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest as Count Rugen).
A film with appeal for girls and boys, from toddlers to teens, though the younger ones might need their hands held during the scarier scenes. Those Rodents of Unusual Size sure scare the hell out of me.
Enchanted (2007, PG) begins as a classic Disney animation. Lovely Giselle (Amy Adams), surrounded by her friends the forest creatures, pines for a prince and “true love’s kiss”. Enter the perfect candidate, Prince Edward (James Marsden), distracted from his troll hunting by Giselle’s lovely singing. They fall in love but before they can go through with the wedding, Giselle falls foul of Edward’s evil step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon, having loads of fun), who sends her to “a place where there are no happy ever afters”.
Giselle emerges in modern-day New York and the film segues into live-action. Neither her arrival, nor the subsequent arrivals of Edward, his valet Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) and Pip the chipmunk seem to phase the locals, though a bus driver does get irate when Edward stabs her bus and announces, “The steel beast is dead, peasants. I’ve set you all free!”
Meanwhile, Giselle is rescued by and falls for divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who scoffs at her romanticism but falls for her, too — to the delight of his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) and displeasure of his girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel).
Enchanted works because it is not cynical, celebrating the same fairytale qualities that it parodies. In one hilarious scene, Giselle summons friendly creatures to help her clean up the apartment where Robert and Morgan live, just as Cinderella summoned the rabbits, fauns and bluebirds to help her tidy the home of the seven dwarves. But because it’s New York City, Giselle gets pigeons, rats and cockroaches to do the job as she sings her “Happy Working Song.”
With its cross-cultural blunders, jokes and big musical numbers, Enchanted is great fun, and with the exception of one “spiteful, vindictive, very large” dragon, not too scary.
Based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (2004, PG) is another live action film that subverts typical fairytale plots and devices while remaining faithful to the qualities of the genre. Ella (the lively and lovely Anne Hathaway) is given the ‘gift’ of obedience by an irresponsible Fairy Godmother, Lucinda (Vivica A Fox), which requires her to do whatever she’s told, regardless of the personal consequences. A throwaway line like ‘you wait here’ fixes her to the spot, even if that’s in the path of a speeding coach. Ella struggles to keep her curse a secret from her awful stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and stepsisters, knowing they would use it to exploit her.
Meanwhile, the kingdom of Lamia is under the rule of the evil Sir Edgar, played in a nice twist by The Princess Bride‘s romantic hero Cary Elwes, who is plotting to keep the crown from his naive nephew, handsome prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy). When Char turns up at a public event, Ella and a friend’s protest against ‘ogrecide’ draws his attention. Ella ends up taking him to see what Edgar has done to the kingdom, driving out the ogres, enslaving the giants and forcing the elves to work as entertainers. They befriend an array of creatures, including Slannen the Elf (Aidan McArdle), who hates singing, dancing and ‘tomfoolery’ and wants to be a lawyer. Slannen ends up being wooed by the giantess Brumhilda (Heidi Klum).
All the while Ella is trying to find Lucinda in order to ask her to take back her gift. But Sir Edgar with the help of the evil stepsisters has discovered Ella’s secret and so that he can retain the crown, lines Ella up to assassinate Prince Char.
The satisfying twist on the typical fairytale in Ella Enchanted is that while your typical fairytale princess is dependent and submissive, Ella’s recognises these qualities as a curse. She must rely on her resourcefulness and strength of character if she is to bring about a happy ending.
Stardust (2007, PG) opens with a young man breaching the wall between an English village and the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where he meets a princess held captive by a witch. They have a brief romance and a year later their son Tristan turns up in a basket on his doorstep. Fast forward 18 years and Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) follows unknowingly in his father’s foosteps over the wall, hoping to retrieve a fallen star to impress his obnoxious girlfriend Victoria (Sienna Miller).
The star turns out to be a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is outraged by Tristan’s plans to make a gift of her to Victoria. “But of course!” she scoffs. “Nothing says “romance” like the gift of a kidnapped injured woman!”
Also hot on the heels of the star is the evil witch Lamia — played with delight by Michelle Pfeiffer — who wants to cut out the star’s heart to restore hers and her sisters’ youth and beauty.
Meanwhile, the succession of Stormhold is in dispute as the dying king’s seven sons keep killing each other off in order to win the throne. The last two standing, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (the fabulous Mark Strong), are hunting the king’s ruby necklace, watched over by the ghosts of the brothers they have assassinated before them.
There’s also a subplot involving a shipload of thunder hunting pirates, with a cross-dressing captain played by Robert de Niro, whose performance alone is worth watching the film for.
All the narrative threads come together, but the complexity of the plot meant Tash had a lot of questions the first time we watched it. And there are some scary bits: a witch is beheaded, another run through with a lance, and then there’s all those dead princes. But it’s a wonderful, magical epic with great performances, gorgeous production values and a happy ending.
The last of the princess movies adults can stand is perhaps an obvious choice since the Shrek movies can appear to have been made with adults rather than, or at least as much as kids in mind.
But I’m including the first Shrek (2001, PG) here because it’s a great antidote to those other Disney princess movies. ‘True love’s kiss’ doesn’t transform the ogre Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) into the pretty Princess Fiona, but demonstrates that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that Fiona is gorgeous, regardless of how she looks.
That true love takes many forms is demonstrated not only by the relationship between cantankerous ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) and the feisty Fiona, but by the fiery (pun intended) romance between the hilarious Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the giant girl dragon that guards Fiona in her tower.
There are also lots of fart jokes, puns, riffs on well-known fairytales and singalong opportunities for the whole family to enjoy.
But if despite these recommendations, your own little princess reaches for the animated Disney options, try steering her towards The Princess and the Frog (2009, G) or Mulan (1998, G) — to my mind, the most bearable of the bunch.