Let’s face it – most modern film versions of fairytales suck.
The pervasive obsession with postmodern spins on these timeless tales is largely to blame, and one big green grumpy ogre has been the chief culprit over the past twenty years or so.
The trend started much earlier though, with The Princess Bride in 1987. It wasn’t a hit at the box office but built a devoted cult following and, while it pokes fun at fairytales, it felt like an affectionate tribute and still had a magic of its own.
The real groundwork for the genre’s ultimate destruction came with Robin Williams’ motormouthed genie in Aladdin five years later. The classic Disney comedy sidekick had been around for many years, but it wasn’t until his livewire performance put a jolt into the tired House of Mouse formula that the postmodern take on a classic tale really took hold. Although the film was ostensibly set in ancient Arabia, the genie was a burst of irreverent, anachronistic energy, riffing on cars, quiz shows and submarines while firing off impressions of Groucho Marx and Jack Nicholson.
Then in 2001 came DreamWorks’ Shrek. Based on William Steig’s children’s book, the project had been in development for several years, with names like Nicolas Cage and Chris Farley attached as the grumpy ogre, before the part eventually fell to Mike Myers. He trotted out his favourite Scor-tesh accent and Eddie Murphy tried to out-do the irreverence as his wisecracking donkey sidekick. Indeed, it felt like a movie entirely populated by comedy sidekicks and its approach initially seemed fresh, putting a spin on a variety of fairytale characters ranging from the Gingerbread Man to Puss in Boots (who got his own movie spinoff). Shrek was a massive hit and the concept of an earnest fairytale was pretty much lost…
The format was so popular and profitable that CGI family films in general (save largely from the outstanding output of Pixar and Laika) became a deluge of jokey, self-referential, pop-culture popping, incongruous needle-dropping facetiousness. Worse still, any attempts at deviating from the rib-nudging hilarity of the formula to reclaim the honest-yet-sanitized Disney fairytales of old, or tap into their darker sources, seemed po-faced and deathly dull by comparison (that means you, Hermione Granger in the pointless Beauty and the Beast remake).
Which is a really long-winded way of saying how much I dug Václav Vorlíček’s delightfully old school Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku) which, visiting for the first time after two decades of Shrek 17 and Tangled and Hoodwinked, plays incredibly fresh by comparison. It takes itself seriously while also still having a mischievous sense of humour.
Downplaying the magical element and setting the story in a sparkling winter wonderland that seems like a benign version of Marketa Lazarova‘s wild and dangerous medieval milieu, Vorlíček relies on good old fashioned virtues to weave his spell. It may look a little barebones after so much CGI saturation, but here we have lively film making, Karel Svoboda’s wondrous score, great use of sets and practical effects, imaginative costume design, and game performances throughout. At its centre is a glowing star-making turn from Libuše Šafránková in her breakthrough role.
Based on a Bohemian version of the familiar Cinderella story by Božena Němcová, we find our heroine living in a small fortified settlement with her stepmother and stepsister. The whole town is in a tizzy because the King is due to visit. All apart from kindly but downtrodden Popelka/Cinderella (Šafránková) who’s in trouble with her stepmom after taking the fall for another servant’s kitchen accident. As punishment, she is given a basket of lentils to sort out from a pile of ash. In true fairytale princess fashion, she is assisted by a flock of white doves. She leaves them doing all the hard work and ducks out for a ride on her beloved horse and visit her pet owl while everyone else is distracted by the upcoming royal appointment.
While out in the forest she spots the Prince (Pavel Trávníček) hunting with friends. Just as he’s about to shoot a deer Popelka hits him in the mush with a snowball, and the Prince gives chase. Once he and his friends catch up, they try to make fun of her but she’s too sharp and escapes on his unruly horse.
Later, another servant takes pity on Popelka while she’s washing clothes in an icy stream and give her three magical hazelnuts that bestow wishes with a similar tinkling music cue to the magic earrings in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. There’s a ball coming up where the King will force the prince to choose a bride. You can probably guess the rest…
Šafránková’s Popelka straddles the divide between the pristine, simpering naifs of classic Disney princesses and postmodern takes admirably. Sure, she squanders her three wishes on pretty clothes, but she’s not about to fall at the feet of the Prince without putting him through his paces. Indeed, she’s an ace horse rider and crack marksman who puts the rather dull prince charming to shame before he eventually wins her heart and her hand.
It’s Šafránková’s movie but there’s also some solid work from Carola Braunbock who portrays a believably wicked stepmother without going full pantomine dame; Rolf Hoppe as a suitably regal king; and a nice cameo from Czech stalwart Helena Růžičková (Sun, Hay, Strawberries) as a guest at the ball.
To the modern eye the film initially looks a bit creaky, but once you settle into the rhythm you start to appreciate the quality of Vorlíček’s direction, who maximises the effect of cinematographer Josef Illík‘s roving camerawork, full of beautifully composed shots, stylish zooms and cheeky freeze frames. At first glance the costumes also look a bit panto, but there’s some wacky treats here too – I loved the court jester’s getup, the prince’s sparky gold disco trilby, and the King’s big floppy hat with a crown somehow jammed down over the top.
Three Wishes for Cinderella has become a family favourite in several mainland European countries, earning the status of a beloved holiday classic equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life in the US. If you’re arriving late to the ball like me, you’ll wish it was part of your childhood too.