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Very Real

Disney Versus Fairy Tale Justice: Good, Gruesome, And Grimm

Sure, we've all seen the Disney versions of old fairy tales. But what really happened by way of "justice" in these old stories? 

By Mieko Gavia

In fairy-tale world, good is rewarded and evil punished — often, in the most brutal of ways. Let’s take a look at differing versions of European fairy tales, from their early written incarnations to their gentler Disney counterparts.

1. Let Down Your Hair!

Disney’s “Tangled” (2010) is based on the Rapunzel fairy tale. In the Disney version, a witch named Mother Gothel kidnaps a young princess whose magic hair can keep Gothel young.  By the end of the film, Gothel’s scheme fails, and the witch falls from her tower and dissolves into dust.

The Brothers Grimm retelling doesn’t contain a punishment for Rapunzel’s captor — Dame Gothel is the sole dealer of punishment in this story. She catches her neighbor stealing her radishes in order to feed his pregnant wife, and demands their future child, Rapunzel, in exchange for leniency. When she finds Rapunzel has allowed a man into her tower she cuts the girl’s hair and exiles her, and she pushes that man out of the tower where he is blinded by the rose bushes she has conveniently planted below.

An earlier Italian version of the tale, called Petrosinella, has all the main beats of the popular Rapunzel story — a pregnant woman with an incurable hunger for a certain vegetable, a villainess (an ogress) who kidnaps the woman’s daughter and spirits her away to a tower where the only access is through climbing her hair. However, In this version, Petrosinella and her bae escape her tower with her captor, an ogress, in hot pursuit. As she runs, Petrosinella throws three walnuts on the ground. The first walnut transforms into a snapping dog, which the ogress distracts with a piece of bread she happens to have in her pocket. Petrosinella’s second walnut becomes a lion, but the ogress steals the hide of a nearby donkey, throws it on, and scares the lion away. The third walnut is a wolf. It devours the ogress, and Petrosinella and her lover are free.

Disney Justice: Villain’s plot to extend her youth is defeated-she dissolves into dust while falling to her death.

Fairytale Justice: In one version, the villain is eaten by the wolf conjured in self-defence by the heroine. In the other, the heroine’s parents forfeit their daughter as punishment for the theft of villain’s resources. Villain exiles heroine for disobeying orders, and maims hero for trespassing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

2. Once Upon A Dream...

In Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, an unnamed fairy decides to exact her revenge on the kingdom for not inviting her to Princess Aurora’s christening. This retelling likely came from either the Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm adaptations. All three involve a vengeful fairy, a young princess who pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, and a long sleep for the entire kingdom. The Grimm version ends when a handsome prince kisses the princess, freeing her and the entire kingdom from a 100 year slumber.

Disney’s film includes the death of the evil fairy Maleficent-she turns into a dragon in her attempt to kill Prince Phillip but he slays her with the help of kindly fairies. She falls out of sight with a sword in her chest. Perrault takes the tale even further — Beauty awakes and, in time, moves to the Prince’s kingdom with their two children, only to run afoul of the prince’s evil mother, who tries to cook and eat the newcomers while the prince is out of town. At the end of the tale she prepares a pot filled with serpents and toads and is about to toss in her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. But suddenly, the prince returns, and the queen is so enraged at being thwarted that she flings herself headfirst into the vat and is eaten alive. Poor Beauty.

Disney Justice: Malicious fairy is stabbed in the heart while in dragon form, and falls to her death.

Fairytale Justice: Malicious fairy receives no punishment. Villainous mother-in-law is eaten alive by her own deadly creatures.

3. Heigh Ho!

Snow White (1937), Disney’s first animated feature film is based on the Brother’s Grimm retelling. Both stories revolve around a young, beautiful princess’s attempted murder by a jealous and evil Queen.

At the end of the Disney film the Evil Queen falls from a mountain ledge into the sea during a battle with Snow White’s Dwarf friends. At the end of the Grimm story? The queen is confident that she’s killed Snow White at last… until she’s invited to a wedding where Snow White is the bride. Driven by her jealousy the queen attends the wedding to see the fairest in the land, where she is forced to put on red hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.

Disney Justice: Villain falls to her death.

Fairytale Justice: Villain is tortured to death at heroine’s wedding.

4. A Tale As Old As Time

The villain in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is Gaston — a self-centered, misogynistic hunter. He harasses Belle, imprisons her father, and lures Belle into leaving the Beast vulnerable and alone. Gaston’s film punishment is, like many Disney villains, to slip, fall, and die out of sight.

Gaston does not exist in other, older versions of this fairy tale. Disney likely adapted their film from Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s 1757 abridged version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve’s “La Belle et la Bête,” published 17 years earlier.

In Beaumont’s work, Beauty is not the only child of an eccentric inventor, but one of 6 children. She willingly goes to live with the Beast in order to save her father’s life, and as in the Disney version, grows to love him.

The original Beauty, however, did not have an overbearing suitor in town--she instead has two wickedly jealous older sisters who spend most of their time in the story verbally abusing Beauty. When she returns from the Beast’s castle to visit her ailing father the sisters see how well she’s dressed, and because they are bitter over their own unhappy marriages, conspire to keep her home longer than the week she had planned. They treat Beauty so kindly and affectionately, and cry so loudly when she attempts to leave, that she decides to stay another week. Eventually, Beauty realizes her absence is literally killing Beast, thereby realizing the value of having a kind, virtuous, sweet companion, and returns to his castle. She finds the Beast dying, confesses her newly realized love and desire to marry him, and suddenly the curse is lifted and the Beast is now a handsome prince.

The fairy who turned the prince into the Beast in the first place for bad behavior also decides to transform Beauty’s two wicked sisters into statues outside the palace gates, where they are doomed to stay until they have conquered their envy and malice.

Disney Justice: Villain falls to his death. Beast and his servants are returned to his human form. Belle is now a princess.

Fairytale Justice: Magic fairy transforms villain sisters into statues until they learn their lesson. Beast is returned to human form and his servants reappear. Belle is now a princess.