George Méliès

film 36 of 70

The Kingdom of the Fairies

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 19, 2015

I want to elaborate here, or explicate. I want to appreciate and pay tribute to the lengths these people went to in providing these entertainments for their audiences.

What pretty pageantry! Everyone is really comfortable in these costumes, and in these settings. It’s hard to overestimate how important that is. That sense of comfort infuses what is loveliest about these movies. It’s not plausibility, but conviction. Every participant believes in and loves what she is doing, and the technologies and techniques that allow her to do it.

I was just celebrating the theatricality of some of these films (see our discussion for The Monster), but we also need to recognize how many of them represented real evolution and advance. We all know A Trip to the Moon, which is partly so celebrated because it was ambitious, and successfully so. It’s not only bigger, but it is clear in its bigness. Very important! And not at all isolated. Toward the very end of his career as a director Méliès’ more elaborate productions fell out of step, as it were, with the times. For a long time, though, they were at the very forefront. This film is another great example of that.

The Kingdom of the Fairies is not just Gulliver/early narrative-like, where producers assume audience familiarity and so feel free to skip bits. Here there’s an assumption of that audience familiarity, and then a complete playing out anyway, with witty and unexpected variations. Jonathan Rosenbaum productively described the virtues of Orson Welles’ very free adaptation of Othello (1952) in these same terms. In doing so he referenced Verdi’s Otello, and pointed out how distinct an opera is from a play. Of course you make changes! Why should a film be any different? The same might be said for Disney’s first attempt at Andersen’s Ugly Duckling (1931), though that one is something of a botch job. This film? It’s Cinderella, but most nervily and charmingly hijacked.

We have more narration here, which elaborates what’s clearly communicated anyway. One of the fairies here is named Aurora. The witch gets a really great introduction. It’s more than just the usual trick cut when the king strikes her and she disappears. She actually bursts into beautiful stenciled flame.

That is some boudoir! It’s fashioned out of theatrical flats and actual furniture, or, we might say, artificiality that brings us into reality. Isn’t that what formalism is, and what it’s for? The narrator describes the bed—in the shape of a shell and supported by Cupids—so that we can notice and appreciate what’s already there, but which we might miss without the help. Makes you think of Erich von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed (1924), which ran something over nine hours. How?! Partly because he shot about every paragraph of Frank Norris’s original novel, built or fashioned most every single thing that had been described therein. I wonder. Would that film have been so utterly and tragically butchered if we’d had a Méliès-ian Benshi to point out the bounty at hand?

Méliès and von Stroheim. Not the most intuitive or natural pairing of cinematic sensibilities!

The witch comes up through the floor. Let’s make this good point again. This trick doesn’t play as creaky, but as an intentional maintenance or commingling of theatrical craft and convention with his burgeoning cinematic arsenal. Demons! A chariot drawn by fantastical animals! He frames a lovely split screen outside: the fantastic cortege bearing away the weeping princess.

Those stars! I love the painted armoury set, which dissolves into a great sublime setting: “an inaccessible rock, and on its summit, a tower without a single door or window.” Having absorbed that a little we go back to the armoury, and the witch riding out on a broom. Great effect! Cool weapons. The plot is developing, and now we encounter a central trope of children’s literature, or of the folk or fairy tale, or maybe of life itself, as we wisely reflect upon it. Help is available, but only in part, and maybe only at the margins. The myths of maturation mostly require that the mortal does things for herself!

Now we’re at the docks, in the company of a bunch of female sailors that are charmingly presentational/formalized. Next comes a really amazing effects shot. I would like to describe it. You will want to see it. A tank is filled with turbulent water. There’s a raised, miniaturized, vanishingly perspectival range of mountains diminishing out to the left. At the back is a rolling sky flat. Lightning flashes orange and then black. The rain starts. Crash! There are real fish in the foreground, and articulated octopus further back in the frame. Six things at once. This is clear excess, much of it purely decorative or non-narrative. Those sudden water nymphs are quite non-diegetic. Laura Mulvey (1973), and her famous, endless-to-the-point-of-obsessively cited observations about cinema’s scopophilic nature? Maybe. But wait.

The victims are revived, at which time they walk/swim most charmingly. Those means of transportation! This procession is more than is practical, or needful. And it’s not just the women that are on display. The whole film, the whole of Méliès’ oeuvre, is essentially a triumphant procession. Have we thought about this sufficiently. Theatrical we say, but without the specificity that would give the claim any meaning. This isn’t just theatre. This is theatrical masque, which is to say a constant, happy excess.

An encyclopedi elaboration, please:

Now the lobsters, of course. Then five scrims pulled away to reveal “an azure grotto of dazzling beauty.” This device is both practical and presentational. It’s the multi-plane camera shot at the beginning of Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio. It has a plot function, it narrates, it dazzles, it expresses the joy of the medium, and of the skillfully executed fruits of their prodigious imaginations.

More prodigies: rocks in the lower foreground, sand shot through with starfish and anemones in the lower mid-ground. There are plant tendrils of some kind arranged all the way across the frame. “Submarine algae, flowers and coral.” A last curtain, more tendrils, jellyfish, and the turquoise water, all pulled down before us as the grotto itself rises up, revealing Neptune sitting on his throne. Some composition! It’s a Raphaelian (as in 1483-1520) triangle, with rococo detail all around. It’s packed, but not chaotic: a compositional triangle, as mentioned, brightly coloured objects and costumes defining its edges, cooler colours in the top corner. And fish in the foreground. (That part’s a little less Italian High Renaissance.) Now comes the maritime omnibus, a whale of natural proportions, provided by the King to take his visitors back home. What have we here? Spectacle on the surface, generosity underneath it all.

There’s a magician. There’s a cabinet of curiosity. The whale swallows them, and spouts for good measure. These elaborations are both iologically and dramatically unnecessary—it’s just for fun. They disembark. Splash! They reach the castle, they effect a rescue. The sets collapse in the midst of some very effectively simulated flames. There’s not much for a princess to do in this world.

The film ends with a last masque/procession, again most expertly and happily offered. Look at that bier! There’s a final multi-plane shot, not so much denouement as theatrical bow, or even complete abstraction. Here it is: the clouds break. There’s Aurora, a central screen, the central couple. The throne is removed. Grills and columns frame and back them all up. Out come the dancers, stasis and movement intermingled. Quite a dance ensues, with nine able ballerinas, and nine decorative ladies in the back. Two cupids fly in at the end, dropping pedals.

Did you get all that? As suggested by the foregoing lengthy description, The Kingdom of the Fairies really is quite astonishingly packed. It’s not just willy-nilly, however. Everything is so beautifully distributed, so balanced for all its busyness.

Still, it’s a pretty rich concoction. A surfeit even, if you want. Do we find it exhausting? Or excessive? Let’s let King Lear have the last say on the matter. His eldest daughters have been telling him that he doesn’t need the royal retinue that he is insisting on trailing around with him. They seem to be making a fair point, and in another setting you might be inclined to grant it them. But there’s something pinched, something ungenerous and even miserable in their urging. You don’t really need any of this, do you father?

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.

Excessive? Their manner of speech was not at all the same, but at heart Méliès might actually be the cinema’s Cordelia.