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Friday, 28 July 2017

Creating Fictional Worlds: How to Make Your Own Fairy Tale Kingdom

Given that the fairy tale genre is defined by characters and story, the significance of the setting can often be overlooked. However, the setting adds to the atmosphere of the stories, and gives characters an environment in which their adventures can take place. Authors of fairy tales can take two different approaches to the setting, often dependant on the medium of story (novels, films, TV series, etc.) in which they are working. Some prefer to use deliberately vague locations, primarily defined by their place in the distant past, whilst others try to depict their location in enough detail to make it feel like a genuinely realistic environment. The demands of audiences can have a significant impact upon the portrayal of fairy tale kingdoms. In recent years, authors have become increasingly aware of importance of representing foreign areas (particularly those outside the traditional European setting) properly without resorting to problematic Orientalist stereotypes, and the need to avoid simplistic clich├ęs means that they have to portray their settings with more depth and complexity, genuinely examining their inner workings.

The Use of Non Specific Locations

In fairy tales, the main priority is telling an engaging story packed full of incidents. This means that the setting is merely described in the most basic fashion. Even fairy tales which aim to showcase a national culture take this simple approach, invoking images of a particular location without fully identifying it. When they published their collection of Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, the Brothers Grimm aimed to promote a unified German culture by highlighting the stories told by ordinary citizens in German-speaking lands, and emphasising the similar interests and values which linked these people. The “purely German” nature of the Brothers Grimm tales is made clear by the fact that these stories all take place in forests and castles similar to those which can be found throughout central Germany. However, the nationalist overtones of the Brothers Grimm’s collection are somewhat concealed by the fact that their location is almost never made explicit. Although some tales have a concrete setting (The Bremen Town Musicians is set on the road to Bremen, but the animal protagonists never actually reach the titular town) most are just set in unnamed and interchangeable kingdoms from “once upon a time”. This deliberately vague approach gives the stories a mysterious atmosphere, and enhances their sense of fantasy. Although the various storytellers whose works were collected by the Brothers Grimm based the locations of their stories on their home countries, they recognised that specifying a clear location would slow down their tales and make them too complicated, thus reducing their magic and universal appeal.

Early Disney films tried to capture the sense of mystery provided by the Brothers Grimm, with Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty giving us locations which invoke the look and feel of the source material without providing many specific details about them. This deliberately vague approach even applies to some of Disney's more modern films. For fans of The Little Mermaid, trying to place Prince Eric’s kingdom in a firm location is nearly impossible. Judging by the sunny climate, proximity to the sea, and the presence of birds such as Flamingos in the nearby area, Eric’s kingdom is seemingly inspired by Mediterranean areas such as Greece, Italy and Monaco. However, Eric’s castle is based on Chillon Castle in Switzerland, and the basic look of the nearest beach is closer to Scandinavian beaches than Mediterranean ones. Overall, it seems like writers and animators were primarily aiming to capture the look and feel of a generic sea-based Kingdom, with little regard for its internal geography. After The Little Mermaid, Disney films began using more clearly defined locations, whether real (Beauty and the Beast is set in France, The Princess and the Frog in New Orleans) or fictional (Rapunzel’s kingdom of Corona, Anna and Elsa’s Kingdom of Arendelle). The need to provide more sophisticated stories and more complex characters has led to the basic approach of earlier Disney films falling out of fashion, and they are now set within more realistic and detailed environments.

Creating Worlds both Near and Far

The magic and mystery represented by these faraway lands have often inspired fairy tale authors. A number of Hans Christian Andersen stories are set in exotic locations, most notably The Nightingale, which takes place in ancient China. During the 18th Century, translations of Arabian Nights became popular in Europe, and in 1805 (The year of Andersen’s birth) the Danish poet and playwright Adam Oehlenschlager created a stage version of Aladdin. This was highly popular in Denmark and Oehlenschlager’s romanticism inspired a lot of Andersen’s finest work. Andersen’s fascination with Asia often bled into his tales in more subtle ways. Though his version of The Little Mermaid is regarded as one of the definitive Danish fairy tales, it is actually set in a kingdom with palm trees and orange trees on the beaches, buildings made from white and yellow materials and characters wearing silk and gold. These descriptions invoke images of the Mediterranean, in particular Asian areas such as Turkey, rather than the less colourful environment of Scandinavia. Incorporating the bright colours and distinctive architecture of the Middle East and Far East into his works allowed Andersen to show off his ability at creating beautiful and evocative descriptions and gave his work the magical atmosphere which has allowed it to remain so iconic today.

Many fairy tale works find inspiration closer to home. In Shrek 2, the fairy tale kingdom of Far Far Away is heavily based on modern-day Los Angeles, complete with a version of the Hollywood sign, red carpet events, shops such as Abercrombie and Witch, and even TV shows. The casually anachronistic nature of Far Far Away generates comedy which keeps with the modern and irreverent tone of the Shrek series. However, the decision to model this a fantasy environment on such a prominent real-life location also serves a more serious purpose. LA is famous for being one of the most glamourous cities in the world, due to its association with the stars of Hollywood. By using this location as their inspiration, the makers of Shrek 2 manage to draw parallels between the aspirational fantasies represented by life in LA and the fantasies which define fairy tales, suggesting that the rich and famous of today are the modern equivalent of the kings, princesses and other major fairy tale characters. This gives them the opportunity to create a clearly-defined and colourful world for our characters to inhabit, whilst also satirising the quirks of life which define not just LA, but in the whole of America. The combination of the magical and mundane allowed Shrek 2 to appeal to both children and adults, generating plenty of comedy about modern life without losing the creativity and imagination which make fairy tales so timeless.

The Problems with Creating Distant Kingdoms

Sometimes, there are instances where decision to set a story in a fictitious kingdom can lead to controversy. This can often happen when creating locations based on regions which are often underrepresented or depicted in an overly stereotypical fashion by Western filmmakers. One film which been particularly criticised for the way in which it creates a fictitious kingdom is Disney’s 1992 hit Aladdin. The kingdom of Agrabah, where Aladdin and the other characters live, is based in the Middle East, but there are also a number of elements from Indian culture, with the Sultan’s palace being modelled on the Taj Mahal. This casual blending of a diverse range of complex cultures into a single entity is made even more problematic by the shallow portrayal of Agrabah’s citizens. With the exception of Aladdin, Jasmine and possibly the Sultan (who look and act more like Westerners than the rest of the cast), the human characters in Aladdin are almost all grotesque caricatures. The Westernised view of Eastern cultures as a single, stereotyped, backwards ‘other’ is known as ‘Orientalism’, and this has the toxic effect of increasing prejudice against these areas. Combining elements from Eastern cultures indiscriminately without respecting their differences and complexities reinforces the Orientalist worldview. It can also generate the deeply offensive implication that the most distinctive thing about these areas is the fact that the inhabitants are not white. In the case of Aladdin, the mishandled and lazy combination of Arabian and Indian cultures ensure that neither is represented properly, hence the controversy generated by the decision to cast the Anglo-Indian actress Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine in the forthcoming live-action remake of the movie.

Ron Clements and John Musker, the co-directors of Aladdin, also co-directed Disney’s more recent hit Moana. It’s depiction of Polynesian characters and customs is far more sensitive, and more scrupulously researched, than Aladdin’s depiction of Arabs, but there are still issues with it. One of these is the way in which Moana’s island, Motonui, features elements from various Polynesian cultures, including Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii. As a result of this, a small but vocal band of critics have accused it of perpetuating Orientalist tropes by reducing many complex cultures into a single fantasy world. However, in the case of Moana, the decision to amalgamate a diverse range of customs and cultures is more justified for two reasons. First of all, the film is inspired by the story of the Long Pause – the 2000 year gap between the arrival of settlers in Western Polynesian Islands like Fiji and Samoa and the colonization of islands in Central and Eastern Polynesia. During the second wave of exploration, Polynesian tribes discovered, and eventually came to inhabit, islands such as Hawaii and New Zealand. Hawaii and New Zealand are the two areas in the region which have the largest population, and most of the key figures involved in making the movie (including almost all of the cast, as well as co-writers Taika Waititi and Aaron and Jordan Kandell) come from Hawaii and New Zealand. For these people, the wayfinders who ended the Long Pause are a common set of ancestors, so it makes sense for Moana and the people of Motonui, who represent a fictionalised version of these wayfinders, to originate some of the traditions which would later become synonymous with their descendants. Secondly, Moana is based on a set of myths which vary between the Polynesian islands. Just as the writers had to merge several different stories about Maui into a single narrative, they had to merge numerous different and sometimes contradictory customs and beliefs, trying to represent all the regions of Polynesia instead of one specific area. Overall, the Polynesian culture which is created for the film is much more respectful than that of Aladdin, but there are still plenty of errors and missteps, and the very idea of creating a fantasy kingdom based on an area which is often overlooked and misrepresented in the real world can be problematic for some.  The pressures faced when making both Aladdin and Moana illustrate the fact that creating a fantasy world for fairy tales can be a risky process which needs to be handled carefully in order to avoid problematic implications.

Exploring the Kingdom

In the world of fairy tales, life as a ruler is often depicted in an overly idealised fashion. Male heroes are rewarded for their bravery by winning the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage, and the fantasy of being a princess remains popular amongst girls today. The portrayal of medieval kingdoms as worlds where characters enjoy power and prestige, as well as pretty castles and elegant clothes, can clash with our knowledge that the pre-enlightenment period in which most fairy tales are set was one defined by prejudice, plague and superstition. This contrast between the dream and the far less glamorous reality has inspired works such as Amy Schumer’s Princess Amy sketch, Rachel Bloom’s Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song, and David Henry Wilson’s 1989 novel The Coachman Rat, which aim to show that the optimistic fantasies of fairy tales cannot survive in the cruel historical world in which they are set. These works have a number of differences (Schumer and Bloom use their signature styles of edgy comedy to make their points, whilst Wilson’s novel is crushingly bleak) but they share a focus on deconstructing the belief that becoming a member of the royal family in a fairy tale world is a dream come true. In recent years, people have become increasingly aware of the violence and tension underpinning daily life, and this has fuelled the demand for darker and edgier stories. The comforting picture of becoming a popular and successful monarch leading a happy medieval kingdom has become less credible, and this has encouraged some particularly brutal fictional subversions of it.

However, showing more of the real world surrounding the fairy tale protagonists does not necessarily mean focusing on the most negative aspects of the human experience. Some of Disney’s most successful properties, such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Tangled, have been spun off into animated TV series, and the increased amount of time spent with the protagonists in this new medium means we need to explore their world in more detail. In films, the kingdoms of our protagonists are depicted in a superficial fashion, as they tend to be a mere backdrop for events, but TV series need to give us a greater understanding of the environment which our protagonists inhabit. The rise of fanfiction has also fuelled increased interest in exploring the inner workings of fairy tale worlds. Frozen has lended itself particularly well to fanfics about royal affairs. Elsa is the first Disney protagonist to be shown becoming a queen, but her responsibilities are barely explored in the film itself. In a family-friendly fantasy musical such as Frozen, examinations of the political intricacies of Arendelle would be an unnecessary and tedious distraction, but in the world of fanfic, authors can discuss the pressures of running a kingdom as much as they wish. Going beyond the basic depiction of a fairy tale kingdom is hard to do in films, but longer and more complex forms of entertainment recognise that building a more developed and realistic world allows increased opportunities for our protagonists to go on adventures.


In the fairy tale genre, memorable characters and an engaging story are generally more important than the setting, which tends to be a mere backdrop. However, a memorable setting can enhance a fairy tale by giving it a distinctive atmosphere, or providing a variety of interesting places where the protagonists and antagonists can interact. The amount of detail which should go into depicting a location depends on the amount of the length of the story and its focus. In a three-page, fast-paced Brothers Grimm story, the settings do not need to be described in any great detail, but in a film like Moana, we want to get a sense of the daily lives of our characters and the world they live in. In recent years, writers and filmmakers have tried to satisfy the demand for settings which reflect the diversity and complexity of the modern world, sometimes creating controversy in the process. Ultimately, a distinctive location can make a fairy tale film stand out, but we should not forget that it also needs to provide a story and characters which audiences all over the world can enjoy and relate to.

Friday, 7 July 2017

D23 Expo 2017 - A Preview

If you’re a Disney fan, the D23 Expo is one of the most important events of 2017. Held by the official Disney fan club D23 (which gets its name from the year in which the Walt Disney Studios were founded), the D23 Expo takes place every two years in the Anaheim Convention Centre. This year, it will take place between Friday 14th July and Sunday 16th July, with thousands of Disney fans from all over the globe heading to California in order to meet the men and women behind the entertainment which has shaped their lives, and learn major secrets about future Disney projects. In the last D23 Expo in 2015, highlights included exclusive footage from Moana, and major revelations about the live-action remakes of The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast. This year, the D23 Expo will be bigger than ever, so there will be even more treats for Disney fans…

Since Walt Disney established his studio in 1923, The Walt Disney Company has become one of the biggest companies in the world, creating the Disney Channel and the Disneyland Theme Parks. They also own the film studios LucasFilm (who make the Star Wars movies) and Marvel Studios (who are behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe), as well as the major American TV channel ABC. All aspects of Disney’s media empire will be represented at the D23 Expo. However, as this blog is aimed at fairy tale fans, it will only discuss events related to Disney’s fairy tale films and TV shows.

Below is a list of events at the D23 Expo which will be of significant interest to Disney enthusiasts and fairy tale fans. These include: costume competitions, panels hosted by Disney historians, interviews with the makers of your favourite Disney films, and special announcements regarding forthcoming projects from the company. If you’re attending the D23 Expo, be sure to check out some of these events…

(Note: For more news on the D23 Expo 2017, be sure to check out the Fairy Tale Fanboy Twitter and Facebook Pages,)

Friday 14th July

Mousequerade (Stage 28, 11AM)

Casual visitors to D23 can expect to see thousands of passionate Disney fans dressed as their favourite Disney characters. In this competition, a number of these cosplayers will show off their best Disney costumes, competing to win trophies in five different categories and a $2,300 cash prize. Jim Babcock, who serves as emcee for a number of Disney events, will host this contest, with actresses Ashley Eckstein and Yvette Nicole Brown and costume designer Kara Saun serving as the judges.

Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios: The Upcoming Films (Hall D23, 2:30PM)

Disney are still defined by their animated films, so this event will be the most significant of the weekend. Here, John Lasseter, Disney’s chief creative officer, will promote the latest animated films from Disney and Pixar. If previous D23 Expos are any indication, he will be joined by a few surprise guest stars. The movies which will dominate the event are Pixar’s next film, Coco (which will be released in America this Thanksgiving) and Wreck-it Ralph 2: Ralph Wrecks the Internet. There is also a real possibility that Lasseter will provide exclusive information about Frozen 2 (due in 2019) or Gigantic (due in 2020)…

Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney Animation (Walt Disney Archives Stage, 4:30PM)

Mindy Johnson is a historian who has written books on several Disney-related subjects, including Tinker Bell: An Evolution and Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man. Her latest book, Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, a detailed, extensively-researched study on the role of female animators within the Walt Disney Studios, will be published in a couple of months. In order to promote it, Johnson will head an event at the D23 Expo where she will interview a panel of female animators who have worked for Disney in order to highlight their contributions to Disney history.

Melodies in Walt’s Time: The Music of Disney’s Live-Action Films (D23 Expo Arena, 6PM)

Although Disney’s live-action films tend to be overshadowed by their animated output, they made a number of live-action musicals in the 1960’s with songs written by The Sherman Brothers. These included Summer Magic, The Happiest Millionaire, and Disney’s greatest live-action movie, Mary Poppins. In this concert, hosted by iconic comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, we will hear classic songs from these movies, such as ‘The Ugly Bug Ball’ and ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, performed by a number of singers, including some of the stars of these films.

Saturday 15th July

The Walt Disney Studios Live Action Films (Hall 23, 10:30AM)

This event will primarily focus on Marvel films (such as Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther) and Star Wars films (such as Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi). However, a significant amount of time will be devoted to previewing Disney’s live-action fairy tale sequels and remakes. The main attraction here will be Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the 1964 live-action classic starring Emily Blunt as the legendary nanny. We could also receive information on some of the live-action remakes currently in the pipeline, including Aladdin, Mulan and The Lion King. Fans have a number of major questions about these projects (Who will play the Genie in Aladdin? Who will play Mulan? Will Elton John return to write new songs for The Lion King?) and it’s likely that at least a few of these will be answered during the event.

The Power of the Princesses (Stage 28, 10:30AM)

Disney Princesses are some of Disney’s most popular characters, so it’s no surprise that they will have a significant presence at the D23 Expo. In this event, animators  Amy Smeed and Kira Lehtomaki will introduce audiences to the women who voiced four of Disney’s most notable Princesses: Jodi Benson (who voiced Ariel) , Paige O’Hara (the original Belle)*, Anika Noni-Rose (who voiced Tiana in The Princess and the Frog), and Auli'i Cravalho (who voiced Disney’s latest princess**, Moana). They will reveal how these iconic characters were created, and share stories about how they have inspired fans all over the world.

(* When this event was announced, Ming-Na Wen, who voices Mulan, was announced as a panellist, but she has been replaced by Paige O’Hara for unknown reasons.)

(**technically, Moana is the daughter of a chief, but she sings and has a cute animal sidekick, so she counts as a princess.)

The Hidden Art of Disney: A Behind-the-Scenes look at the They Drew as They Pleased Book Series (Walt Disney Archives Stage 11:30AM)

During the D23 Expo, the Walt Disney Archives Stage will host events which provide fascinating insights into Disney’s history. One of these is The Hidden Art of Disney, hosted by Didier Ghez, the author of They Drew as They Pleased. This collection of books (Ghez has already published two volumes and plans to write six) showcases the work of concept artists who helped create the universes central to each Disney film and the characters who inhabit them. In this event, Ghez will reveal how he researches for each of his books (the majority of illustrations shown in each volume have never been seen by the public before), and provide an exclusive preview of concept art featured in Volume 3 of They Drew as They Pleased, which will be published in autumn.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure: A Sneak Peek at the New Frozen Short Film (Stage 28, 2:30PM)

In Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, the lovable snowman from Frozen will return for a 21-minute short (which will accompany Coco in cinemas) in which he tries to help Anna and Elsa celebrate the perfect Christmas by finding a best Christmas tradition for them. With Jennifer Lee and the Lopez’s busy working on both the Broadway version of Frozen and the long-awaited Frozen 2, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is being brought to life by a new creative team, headed by directors Stevie Wermers-Skelton and Kevin Deters, producer Roy Conli and composers Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel (who are writing four new songs). In this event, exclusive previews of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure will be shown, and there will also be plenty of behind-the-scenes footage.

Once Upon a Time (D23 Expo Arena 3:15PM)

This autumn, ABC’s popular fairy tale TV series Once Upon a Time is undergoing a “soft reboot” for its seventh season. Henry, the son of original protagonist Emma Swan, is now an adult, who has just been reunited with his daughter Lucy. Some key characters from the previous six seasons (such as Emma Swan and Snow White), will no longer be part of the core cast, and the characters who are returning (such as Regina and Captain Hook) will be joined by new protagonists and antagonists. In this event, co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz will explain the major changes made to the show in more detail, with Colin O’Donoghue, who plays Captain Hook, joining them to promote the new season.

Sunday 16th July

Celebration of an Animated Classic: The Lion King (D23 Expo Arena, 10AM)

23 years after its initial release, The Lion King remains one of Disney’s finest and best-loved animated films. It has spawned a direct-to-video sequel, a direct-to-video midquel, two spin-off TV series, a long-running stage musical and even a live-action remake. Simba’s coming-of-age story remains just as compelling today as it was in 1994, and its legacy will be the subject of this event. Producer Don Hahn, director Rob Minkoff and animators Tony Bancroft and Mark Henn will tell us about how The Lion King was made, and they will be joined by a few special guests as they discuss how it became such a timeless classic.

Tangled: The Series Q&A Panel (Stage 28, 10:30AM)

After going on a three-month hiatus, Tangled: The Series is returning with new episodes on Sunday 23rd July. In order to promote the new adventures of Rapunzel and Co., there will be a Q&A Session headed by Mandy Moore (who voices Rapunzel) and Zachary Levi (who voices her love interest Flynn Rider Eugene Fitzherbert). They will be joined by executive producers Chris Sonnenburg and Ben Balistreri, as well as Eden Espinosa and Jeremy Jordan, who voice the prominent new characters Cassandra and Varian…

Walt Disney Signature Collection Presents: The 75th Anniversary of Bambi (Walt Disney Archives Stage, 11:30AM)

Disney’s Bambi premiered in 1942, introducing children the beauty of wildlife through the story of the titular deer, and featuring (in scene where Bambi’s mother dies) one of the most iconic tearjerker moments in cinema. In order to mark its 75th anniversary, the surviving members of the voice cast will reveal stories about how the film was made, and discuss the distinctive and beautiful animation, which has inspired animators for generations.

Zero to Hero: The Making of Hercules (D23 Expo Arena, 12:30PM)

Hercules, Disney’s comedic take on Greek mythology, celebrated its 20th anniversary last month. Though it proved a relative financial disappointment on its initial release, its catchy gospel-influenced songs, lively comedy and memorable characters have given it a strong fan base. In this event, the directors of Hercules, Ron Clements and John Musker (The duo behind The Little Mermaid and Moana) will share stories about the making of the movie, joined by animators Eric Goldberg and Ken Duncan, and voice actors Tate Donovan and Susan Egan, who voiced the protagonists Hercules and Megara.

A Whole New World of Alan Menken (Hall D23, 1:30PM and 5:30PM)

If there is one man who defined ‘The Disney Renaissance’ during the 1990’s, it is Alan Menken. He wrote the scores for Disney classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and has also provided music for more modern hits such as Enchanted and Tangled. Menken has always been aided by lyricists such as Howard Ashman, Sir Tim Rice and Glenn Slater, but in this show, he is going solo. He will sing some of his most iconic songs, such as “Under the Sea”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World”, whilst providing stories about his long and eventful career.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: 80th Anniversary Screening (D23 Expo Arena, 3:15PM)

Out of all the major anniversaries being marked by Disney this year, the most significant is the 80th anniversary of the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The first feature-length animated movie ever made by Disney, this adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale retains a lot of its magic today, due to its enchanting visuals and simple yet appealing story. In order to commemorate 80 years since it was first released, the movie will receive a special screening at D23.

Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough: 60 Years of Walt’s Most Charming Tableaux (Walt Disney Archives Stage, 3:30PM)

When Disneyland was being created in 1956, Disney were hard at work creating their animated film Sleeping Beauty, which would be released in 1959. In order to promote the movie, Disney set up a walkthrough attraction in Sleeping Beauty Castle, enlisting key animators to recreate scenes from the movie inside the castle. In this event, Tony Baxter and Christopher Merritt, who work as “Imagineers” and create the attractions seen at Disney theme parks, will discuss the history and development of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, including its debut in 1957 and its reopening in 2008 after being closed for seven years.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Combining Fairy Tales: Top 10 Universes, Crossovers and Mash-Ups

We are all familiar with a wide range of fairy tales, and their numerous retellings. However, sticking to just one of these stories can be a bit limiting in a world where people are always looking for something new. One quick way of providing the unique product which audiences want is by making a story combining two or more familiar tales in a new way, and many talented authors do this in order to make their contributions to the fairy tale genre stand out. The resulting stories can be referred to as 'combination tales', and there are more than enough examples of 'combination tales' for them to be considered as a full subgenre. There are three ways of combining numerous fairy tales and fairy tale characters into a single story: Universes, Crossovers and Mash-ups.

Universes – The simplest way of combining fairy tales is by placing all the characters we know in a single world. This environment is generally modern in nature, designed to contrast with the rural traditions of fairy tales. The main source of appeal in these universes comes from seeing familiar characters react to the pressures of an unfamiliar world.

Crossovers – Similar to Universes, but with a few differences. These tend to focus on combining a select number of stories instead of depicting an entire world, and they are set in a more conventional fairy tale environment in which woods and witches lurk around every corner.

Mash-Ups - In the world of music, Mash-Ups feature the lyrics of one song being laid over the music of another. The 'combination tales' listed here do something similar, often putting well-known characters from one tale into another story.

There are numerous examples of stories in all three categories. As in any subgenre, 'combination tales' range from brilliant to terrible. However, this article will showcase only the ten best of these. These prove that different fairy tales can be combined into a single story which is unique, creative and fascinating in its own right. This list includes comic books, novels, plays, films, TV series and even a couple of fanfics, but the diverse range of works highlighted represent the very best examples of this subgenre.


  • ·         Fables
(Plot: Thousands of years ago, characters from our favourite children’s stories were forced to flee their homelands when a creature called The Adversary invaded them. They now live in modern-day New York, forming a community called Fabletown. One of the most important citizens there is Snow White, the assistant of Fabletown’s mayor King Cole. In addition to protecting her fellow “fables” and hiding them from the “mundys” (ordinary humans), she has an eventful personal life, including a romance with Bigby Wolf - a sheriff keeping his lupine and homicidal instincts in check - and a strained relationship with her troublemaking sister Rose Red.)

Vertigo Comics have been behind comic books such as Preacher and The Sandman (the latter created by the legendary Neil Gaiman), and the stylish and edgy approach of these cult favourites is applied to the world of children’s stories in Fables. Created by Bill Willingham with the aid of various illustrators, the first issue of Fables was published in 2002, with new issues being published monthly until the series concluded on issue #150 in 2015. Fables started with a relatively mundane murder mystery story which introduced us to our main characters and their world, then gradually expanded in scope until the final issues, which depict Snow White and Rose Red preparing for the battle which will lead to the destruction of Fabletown. In between, our protagonists face numerous conflicts and adventures, and a wide variety of characters get smaller, self-contained stories.

Like other Vertigo Comics properties, Fables is something of an acquired taste, with plenty of gore, sex and swearing. However, there is enough charm and creativity to prevent things from becoming too unpleasant, and plenty of great characters for us to care about. Snow White is a fascinating protagonist, who is tough and intelligent, but she struggles to deal with the traumatic events which have defined her past, and repair her relationship with Rose Red. Meanwhile, Bigby is a moody antihero whose love for Snow White and desire to protect Fabletown make up for his numerous objectionable traits. Apart from the protagonists, the most memorable supporting characters include a womanising Prince Charming who has slept with every "Fable" princess he has ever met, and the likeable Frog Prince, Flycatcher, AKA Prince Ambrose. Due to its large and memorable cast and distinctive tone, Fables has become one of the most successful series created by Vertigo Comics, spawning numerous spin-off comics, graphic novels and even a video game during its long run.

  • ·       Once Upon A Time
(Plot: On the night of her 28th birthday, cynical bounty hunter/ bail bondswoman Emma Swan is visited by a child called Henry, who reveals that he’s the son she gave up for adoption a decade ago. Emma takes Henry back to his hometown of Storybrooke, but Henry tells her that the inhabitants of Storybrooke are actually fairy tale characters, transported there after the Evil Queen placed a curse upon Snow White. Although Henry and his mysterious adoptive mother Regina are initially the only two people aware of this, the rest of the residents, including mysterious pawnbroker Mr Gold and warm-hearted teacher Mary, soon begin to recall their pasts in the fairy tale world. Across subsequent series, the inhabitants of Storybrooke get involved in various adventures involving new dark forces and several curses and mysteries…)

Given that they have created some of the most iconic fairy tale films of all time, it is no surprise that Disney have been behind several works in which characters from multiple fairy tales interact in a single world. Their TV movie Descendants featured the children of famous Disney heroes and villains attending school together, but their most successful attempt at combining the fairy tale characters we love into a single universe is Once Upon a Time, which has aired for six seasons on the Disney-owned channel ABC, with the first of these airing in 2011. The series was created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who previously helped write the hit TV series Lost. Like Lost, Once Upon A Time features elaborate storylines and character arcs which can be confusing to the uninitiated, but it has developed a large and passionate fanbase who are drawn to the universe it depicts and its messages about the value of love, family and happy endings.

The most notable aspect of Once Upon a Time is the large cast of memorable characters, who often prove far more complex to be than the archetypal fairytale characters they are based on. The most prominent of these are Emma, a tough everywoman whose experiences in Storybrooke inspire her to fight for the inhabitants of the town, and Regina, who starts out as a conventional vampish villain, but soon evolves into a more sympathetic figure. The residents of Storybrooke have also met a wide variety of characters from famous stories ranging from Frozen to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Across its run, Once Upon a Time has been nominated for a total of 91 awards, winning 9 of these, including Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi at the 2016 Teen Choice Awards. A seventh series will start airing in the autumn, but this will be a “soft reboot”, centred on the now grown-up Henry. It will retain some of the core characters, such as Regina and Hook, but others such as Emma and Snow White are no longer part of the main cast.

  • ·       Shrek
(Plot: Shrek is a giant green ogre who prefers to live as far away from others as possible. However, his swamp gets invaded by fairy tale characters (including the fast-talking Donkey) evicted from their kingdom by the tyrannical Lord Farquaad. In a bid to get his swamp back, Shrek makes a deal with Farquaad – he and Donkey will rescue Princess Fiona, a sassy princess imprisoned in a tower due to a mysterious curse, and bring her to Farquaad to be his bride. Shrek manages to complete the first part of his task and free Fiona, but things get complicated when they begin to develop feelings for each other...)

None of the projects on this list has had as much impact as Shrek, which revolutionised the animated genre in 2001. At the time, Disney’s films had become too formulaic and had lost a lot of their signature charm, so when rival animation studio Dreamworks (owned by former Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg) released Shrek, its irreverent humour meant it represented a breath of fresh air. Shrek was adapted from a 1990 picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, but screenwriters expanded the 32-page story to feature-length by creating a more elaborate plot, with fairy tale characters such as Pinocchio, The Big Bad Wolf, and The Gingerbread Man playing a key role. The inclusion of these familiar figures enhanced the movie’s parody of established fairy tale conventions, and there were numerous jokes at the expense of Disney. However, for all the crude and subversive aspects of Shrek, the CGI animation was incredibly advanced for the time, and the film had an excellent message about the importance of inner beauty.

Due to its ability at combining edgy humour with an appealing, family-friendly story, Shrek proved a major hit, winning the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Film. In 2004, it was followed by Shrek 2, which added a Zorro-inspired take on Puss in Boots and a villainous Fairy Godmother to the universe, and introduced viewers to Far Far Away Land, a fairytale kingdom with more than a passing resemblance to modern-day Hollywood. It proved to be every bit as popular as the original, making over $919 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing animated film to date. The two subsequent sequels (released in 2007 and 2010) failed to match up to the high standard set by these two movies, but Shrek remains popular today, and Dreamworks have been spending the last few years developing a revival of the franchise.

  • ·         The Lunar Chronicles
(Plot: Cinder is a cyborg* in the polluted, plague-ravaged futuristic city of New Beijing. Scarlett is an impulsive teenager from France whose grandmother has just gone missing. Cress is a computer expert who has been imprisoned on a satellite since childhood. Winter is a rebellious princess whose facial scars do not conceal her inner beauty. These heroines will have to team up to take on the tyrannical Queen Levana of the planet Luna, who plans to take over the earth.)

(*for those too addicted to fairy tales to understand technical terminology, this means she’s half-human, half-robot)

Most of the fairy-tale “universe” stories mentioned here feature fairytale characters in the modern world or (in the case of Shrek) a fairy tale world that has more in common with the present than the past. However, The Lunar Chronicles goes even further, setting its retellings of fairy tales such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel in the far future. The Lunar Chronicles franchise consists of five novels (as well as several shorter stories and a couple of graphic novels) written by Marissa Meyer. The first three novels in The Lunar Chronicles (Cinder, Scarlet and Cress) introduce us to our misfit protagonists, the fourth (Fairest) is told from the perspective of the villainous Queen Levana, and the series climaxes with an epic finale, the 827-page Winter.

A former fanfiction writer, Meyer understands her teenage audience very well. Although The Lunar Chronicles uses the same basic ‘teens vs. tyrants’ storyline of major YA (Young Adult) literary franchises such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, it also has the epic storytelling and memorable characters needed to stand out in a crowded genre. Cinder, Scarlet and Cress are relatable protagonists, with enough quirks and flaws to feel realistic and well-developed. The combination of fairy tale characters and sci-fi tropes is also effective. Whilst the two genres seem totally different, they both rely on building atmosphere and appealing to our fascination with the unknown. This means that, in spite of the frequent use of technical terminology and the complex relationships at the centre of her work, Meyer manages to maintain the of the underlying mystique and charm of the classic stories which inspired her. Overall, The Lunar Chronicles is an entertaining series which highlights the enduring appeal of the fairy tale protagonists who feature in it.


  • ·         A Tale Dark and Grimm
(Plot: Hansel and Gretel are reimagined as the children of a monarch, who cuts off their heads in order to bring his faithful servant back to life. Hansel and Gretel quickly get resurrected, but their experience (understandably) causes them to run away and look for parents who won’t kill them. However, in the world of fairy tales, such perfect parents turn out to be incredibly hard to find, and Hansel and Gretel end up battling witches, dragons, curses and even the devil himself…)

It is difficult to dislike a story which begins with the line “Once upon a time, fairy tales were AWESOME!”, and this novel by Adam Gidwitz succeeds in demonstrating that fairy tales are not as sweet and innocent as many moral guardians want us to believe. A Tale Dark and Grimm has often been compared to Lemony Snicket’s much-loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, as it revels in the notion that it may be too dark and gory for sensitive readers, featuring numerous warnings advising the faint of heart to stop reading. Much is made of the fact that A Tale Dark and Grimm preserves the bloody content of the classic Brothers Grimm stories, but it also maintains the simplistic, earthy and unpretentious tone which makes them so appealing.

A Tale Dark and Grimm weaves together several Brothers Grimm stories in which children are treated in ways which would make modern audiences uncomfortable. Almost everyone knows about Hansel and Gretel, but only fans of the Brothers Grimm are familiar with tales like Faithful Johannes, The Seven Ravens and Brother and Sister. The common theme of “children in peril” which unites these stories allows them to be combined into a single engaging and effective narrative, as our two protagonists end up stuck in a variety of dangerous situations and realise that they have to grow up quickly in order to survive. The darkness of the fairy tales used is balanced out by the comedic narration and a narrative with the excellent message that children are more intelligent and self-sufficient than adults give them credit for. Unsurprisingly, A Tale Dark and Grimm has been a huge hit with older children since it was first published in 2010, and it even managed to appear on the New York Times’ prestigious Bestsellers list. Adam Gidwitz has since written two follow-up stories (In A Glass Grimmly and A Grimm Conclusion) which have stuck with the winning formula, featuring various child protagonists navigating their way through fairytales both familiar and obscure.

  • ·         Into the Woods
(Plot: A baker and his wife learn that their inability to have a child is the result of a curse placed on them by a witch. In order to break this curse, the duo have to bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Their quest leads them to Little Red Riding Hood, (who encounters a wolf on her journey to find her grandmother) Jack (who wishes to regain the cow he sold for five magic beans), Rapunzel (seeking to leave her tower and explore the outside world) and Cinderella (who wishes to attend the King's Festival and escape her cruel stepmother and stepsisters). Initially, all these characters are able to obtain the happy endings they seek. However, their impulsive actions eventually lead to disaster, as the Baker’s marriage starts to fall apart, Rapunzel proves unable to cope with the outside world, and a rampaging giant seeks revenge on Jack…)

Stephen Sondheim is one of the most iconic songwriters in the musical theatre genre, renowned for his clever lyrics, intricate melodies, and his ability at creating compelling musicals about dark and unconventional subjects. Sondheim’s talents are in full display in Into the Woods, which premiered on Broadway in 1987. James Lapine, (who previously collaborated with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park With George) wrote the script, but Sondheim is the person most responsible for making Into the Woods such an iconic musical. The 14-minute prologue to Into the Woods, which introduces us to the characters and their wishes and kick-starts the plot, highlights just how talented Sondheim is, as he creates a distinctively mysterious world and memorable characters using complex musical techniques, amusing wordplay and even a bit of rapping. Other notable songs from Into the Woods include “Hello Little Girl” (The Big Bad Wolf’s enjoyably creepy attempt to seduce Little Red Riding Hood), the moving “No-One Is Alone” and the closing number “Children Will Listen”. This impressive music is used to soundtrack a creative and intelligent deconstruction of the fairy tale genre.

The most notable feature of Into the Woods is its inspired use of the Two-Act structure which defines modern theatre. The First Act blends faithful retellings of four classic fairy tales, which preserve their darker and gorier aspects (Cinderella’s story is based on the Brothers Grimm version, rather than the softer and simpler Charles Perrault version which inspires most adaptations), with the adventures of the baker and his wife, two ordinary people who end up having a significant influence on the familiar characters. The First Act ends happily, with the dreams of the protagonists coming true, but in the Second act, these dreams turn into nightmares. Today, in an era when fairy tales are expected to be dark and edgy, many of the twists which shocked those expecting more a conventional fairy tale narrative (protagonists get killed by the giant, Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Prince Charming’s both turn out to be shallow philanderers) no longer feel so subversive. That said, Into the Woods will always remain a great musical, due to the brilliant songs, the fascinating characters and, most importantly of all, the timeless and valuable messages about the impact of fairy tales on our children and the consequences of pursuing your dream without considering the long-term effects this could have. There have been several major productions of Into the Woods over the last 30 years, and in 2014, it was even adapted into a film featuring an all-star cast which included Meryl Streep, James Corden, Johnny Depp and Chris Pine.

  • ·         Kissing the Witch
(Plot: This collection features thirteen stories, which put unique twists on European fairy tales ranging from Cinderella and Donkeyskin to The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid. These include a story about Cinderella realising that she cares more about her fairy godmother than any prince, and one which explains why the Evil Queen wanted to kill Snow White. However, these tales are connected far more closely than they initially appear to be…)

Emma Donoghue is best known for her 2010 novel Room, which was recently-adapted into an Oscar-winning film, but she has also provided a number of short story collections, of which Kissing the Witch is the most notable. Kissing the Witch sounds like yet another collection of revisionist takes on fairy tales, but whereas most works in this crowded genre consist of an anthology of standalone stories, Donoghue combines her tale into a single chain of interlinked narratives. Each story ends with the protagonist asking a question about another central character, and that character then tells them their own tale. Donoghue described this device as “a simple ploy” to make the stories “more marketable”, but it allows Kissing the Witch to stand out (it also allows the anthology to qualify for this list). This structure also pays tribute to the role of women’s folklore in shaping the fairy tale genre.

Kissing the Witch starts with its unusual spin on Cinderella, with establishes some of the major themes of the collection. In addition to showing Cinderella rejecting her Prince in favour of the beautiful Fairy Godmother, it focuses on her doubts and insecurities, with her earlier servitude forced upon her by negative voices in her head rather than a wicked stepmother. After this, we learn about how the fairy godmother had to deal with her own inner demons, and a sense of inadequacy which made her feel as small as Thumbelina. The chain of fairy tales continues from here, going from Rapunzel to The Snow Queen to Hansel and Gretel, before finishing with an original story about a witch who, in spite of her reputation has no magical powers”. The transitions are usually highly effective, giving increased depth to the characters and the world which they inhabit, and the ease with which a secondary character from one story becomes the protagonist in the next proves that the wide range of women in fairy tales have more in common than most casual readers would think. Kissing the Witch uses its unconventional structure to update fairy tales for more feminist times whilst also highlighting their origins as oral narratives and old-wives tales.


  • ·         Dark as Snow
(Combines Frozen and The Bloody Chamber)

(Read Dark as Snow here. It can also be read on ArchiveOfOurOwn and Tumblr)

(Plot: Desperate to escape from her lonely life with her troubled, reclusive sister Elsa, Anna Arendelle gets impulsively married to seemingly perfect widower Hans Westergard. However, life with Hans in his lavish estate isn’t the fairy tale ideal she expected, and Anna soon finds herself becoming increasingly close to his stable hand, Kristoff. But Hans is keeping a dark secret, hidden inside a mysterious locked room, and it could endanger everything Anna holds dear…)

In theory, the idea of combining Frozen, Disney’s most successful movie, with The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s adults-only take on Bluebeard, sounds ludicrous. However, this fanfic, from the author Anysia, blends the two into one atmospheric and enthralling story. Essentially, Dark as Snow is a straightforward retelling of The Bloody Chamber with characters from Frozen in the lead roles. Anna becomes the protagonist, whilst the villainous Hans takes on the role of The Bloody Chamber’s sinister Marquis. Kristoff and Elsa are also central characters, with Anna’s relationship with Kristoff providing some much-needed sweetness to contrast with the dark and grim tone of the rest of the tale. Dark as Snow includes many of the most memorable elements from Carter’s story (the red ruby necklace, the bed surrounded by mirrors, the book full of sexually sadistic pornography), whilst also sneaking in a number of references to Frozen. If you are familiar with The Bloody Chamber, the allusions to that story are a real treat, but even if you aren’t, this is still a great work on its own terms.

The writing is excellent, with vivid and evocative descriptions that really add to the atmosphere and thus increase tension. Anysia is also great at getting inside Anna’s head, and really makes us care about her and hope that she gets a happy ending. Dark as Snow is definitely not suitable for children, and it is often genuinely scary. Hans is upgraded from the scheming nuisance of Frozen into a truly terrifying monster, and this fanfic contains a number of disturbing scenes where he inflicts acts of physical and sexual violence upon Anna. However, adult readers who can endure moments like these should definitely check this story out. With its memorable, well-developed characters, powerful descriptions and an excellent feminist message, Dark as Snow is proof that a fanfic can be every bit as impressive as a more professional work of fiction.

  • ·        The Coachman Rat
(Combines Cinderella and The Pied Piper of Hamelin)

(Read The Coachman Rat here)

(Plot: A rat seeking to explore the human world is accidentally transformed into a human coachman as part of a spell from a fairy godmother which turns scullery maid Amadea into a beautiful princess so that she can attend the Royal Ball. After Amadea’s eventful night at the ball, Robert turns back into a rat, but maintains his ability to speak. However, his gifts soon attract the attention of unscrupulous revolutionary Devlin, who exploits Robert’s power of speech in order to carry out a bloody coup. After Amadea is killed, the fairy turns Robert back into a human, enabling him to plot revenge on Devlin and his supporters.)

Even when competing against stories like Into The Woods and Dark As Snow, The Coachman Rat is the darkest 'combination tale' mentioned in this article by some distance. Written in 1989 by English author David Henry Wilson, it takes one of the most iconic stories of wish-fulfilment in fiction and ruthlessly shatters the upbeat ideals which it represents. The idea of telling the story of Cinderella from the perspective of an animal sidekick seems rather whimsical, but this incarnation of the tale takes place in a world of plague, superstition and witch-burnings. Initially, Robert’s quest to become human permanently has some amusing aspects, but then Amadea and her prince get gruesomely executed. Once Robert is made human again, The Coachman Rat reveals itself as a variation on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, as he gains the ability to summon and control an army of rats using a recorder. Robert uses this power to strike back against the kingdom which wronged him, but soon finds himself alienated from both humankind and his fellow rats.

It goes without saying that Robert is the most important character here, as his initial fascination at the power and influence of humans is replaced by disgust and hatred when he realises what they are truly capable of. Robert’s first-person narration conveys his loss of innocence effectively, as he recalls a variety of awful events with the cold, matter-of-fact detachment of a protagonist whose quest to learn and discover has ended in total tragedy. If you like your fairy tales to be escapist and optimistic, then The Coachman Rat is definitely not for you. However, its bold approach and hard-hitting messages allow it to stand out, providing a harsh reminder that the innocence embodied by fairy tales cannot survive the cruelty and violence of the real world.

  • ·        The Tangled Princess Bride
(Combines Tangled and The Princess Bride)

(Read The Tangled Princess Bride here)

(Plot: With their parents both away on royal business, the task of looking after Zachary and Rose falls to their grandfather, the King of Corona. Deciding to read them a bedtime story, the King chooses a tale called The Princess Bride from an anthology series called the Nineteen 80’s. This story is about the relationship between Rapunzel, a girl with magical hair, and the stable hand Eugene Fitzherbert, who get involved in an incredible adventure involving fencing, revenge, chases, escapes, true love, miracles and all sorts of exciting stuff. Soon, Zachary and Rose begin to notice parallels between the protagonists of The Princess Bride and their parents…)

Based on the novel by screenwriter William Goldman, The Princess Bride is one of the best-loved fairy-tale films of all time, with its wonderfully quotable dialogue (including iconic lines such as “As you wish” and “Inconceivable!”), memorable characters and playful sense of humour. Its blend of comedy, fantasy and adventure has inspired numerous fairy-tale films, such as Disney’s 2010 hit Tangled. This story highlights how much Tangled was influenced by The Princess Bride by inserting Rapunzel, Eugene and all their friends and enemies into Goldman’s story, leading to a gloriously chaotic and enjoyable adventure.

Rapunzel and Eugene fit perfectly into the shoes of Buttercup and Westley, and their eternal love for each other gives the story heart to accompany the comedy. Like the two films which inspired it, The Tangled Princess Bride takes great pleasure in celebrating the familiar fantasy tropes whilst pointing out how ridiculous they can be, leading to plenty of silliness and tonnes of anachronistic humour. Highlights include an unusual wedding ceremony presided over by a highly inebriated priest, a wonderfully over-the-top climactic battle involving dozens of famous Disney characters, and an interlude where the King of Corona gets the wrong page and accidentally reads the children an extract from a story called Tangled Die Hard