The Best Live Action Fairy Tale Movies

Fairy tales have captivated readers for centuries. On film, they tend to be something for kids because Disney has turned so many into animated tales for young audiences. But this list looks past the Disney cartoons (which could be a 10-best list all by themselves) to focus on films not necessarily for kids, the best live-action fairy tales (and that excludes Greek myths or fantasy films like Lord of the Rings).

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'The NeverEnding Story' (1984)

Neverending Story cover

German director Wolfgang Petersen followed his submarine war story Das Boot with a fairy tale-inspired children's film -- The NeverEnding Story. It's an odd follow up indeed from the gritty and intense war drama. The effects that have not fared well over time yet the film enchanted a generation and still draws crowds of adoring fans at midnight screenings.

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'Edward Scissorhands' (1990)

Edward Scissorhands poster

The titular Edward Scissorhands is a pale creature with knives for fingers and an artist's soul to create beautiful things. This is Depp and Burton at their best. Here they are not presenting weird for weirdness sake but creating a charming yet strangely sad character that we come to love. As with Terry Gilliam's films, Burton's are incredibly detailed in their production design, costumes, and effects. Visually enchanting.

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'Adventures of Baron Munchausen' (1988)

Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Adventures of Baron Munchausen. © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

A perfect match of filmmaker and material. Terry Gilliam is well suited to a tall tale about storytelling told by a highly unreliable storyteller. Baron Munchausen is an 18th-century aristocrat who spins stories about being swallowed by a giant sea-monster, a trip to the moon, and a dance with Venus.

Brilliantly cast, impeccably designed and shot, the film is a dazzling fairy tale epic. But like Cocteau, Gilliam asks you to come with "the faith of childhood" and allow the film to awaken your sense of wonder.

If you question the plausibility of Gilliam's film or Munchausen's tales, then you have not come in the right spirit. Gilliam also displays his flair for fairy tales in Time Bandits, The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, and The Fisher King.

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'Pan's Labyrinth' (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth
Pan's Labyrinth. © Picturehouse

A young girl's vivid imagination leads us into the fantasy world of Pan's Labyrinth, a tale set against the Spanish Civil War in 1944. Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has a gift for making fantasy worlds tangible and real.

Del Toro riffs on many fairy tale conventions: an evil stepfather stands in for the Big Bad Wolf, a young girl is a lost princess; and there's an underworld populated by strange and beguiling creatures.

The film is ultimately both a fairy tale and a sobering parable. Guillermo Del Toro describes it as “about choice and disobedience. I think disobedience is the threshold of responsibility and I think you have to go by your instinct and the movie tries to show through a parable that choice and disobedience go hand in hand sometimes.”

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'The Company of Wolves' (1984)

Company of Wolves poster

Here's a very adult take on fairy tales, Neil Jordan's sexually charged interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. Taking equal parts fairy tale and Freud, Jordan spins a tale about growing sexual awareness and loss of innocence.

Stephen Rea is one of the appealing werewolves. Jordan has a knack for mixing genres, and his Mona Lisa and Ondine also serve up fractured fairy tales that find beauty and magic in an otherwise mundane and drab real world.

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'Hans Christian Anderson' (1952)

Hans Christian Anderson
Hans Christian Anderson. © MGM

The film begins with this description: "Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales." And who better to play this spinner of tales than the multi-talented and irrepressible Danny Kaye. Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes was supposed to have played the ballerina but had to bow out when she got pregnant.

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'The Red Shoes' (1948)

The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes. © Criterion

Equally dazzling is this tale of a ballerina, a composer, and a dictatorial impresario loosely inspired by a Hans Christian Anderson story. Director Michael Powell turns the story into a visual feast of bold, vibrant colors and surreal imagery.

The striking dance numbers are fresh even today and are so vivid that once you've seen them you will never forget them. Lovely professional ballet dancer Moira Shearer made her film debut as ballerina Victoria Page.

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'The Princess Bride' (1987)

Princess Bride cover

Rob Reiner's film manages to be both a sincere valentine to all the bedtime stories we had read to us as a child as well as a gentle ribbing of fairy tale conventions.

The film sets the tone brilliantly with Peter Falk as a grandfather reading a favorite book to his rather disinterested grandson (Fred Savage). But as he spins the tale of Buttercup and Westley (played with absolute sweetness by Robin Wright and Cary Elwes), the young boy -- like the audience -- is utterly charmed and held rapt.

The cast is superb from top to bottom and includes Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, and Billy Crystal. Plus so many quotable lines. Inconceivable!

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'La Belle et La Bete' (1946)

La Belle et La Bete
La Belle et La Bete. © The Criterion Collection

Before Disney turned Beauty and the Beast into a cartoon there was Jean Cocteau's magical live-action adaptation, La Belle et la Bete. Based on the famous French fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and published in 1757, the film serves up the most magnificent and romantic Beast in Jean Marias.

Although he’s supposed to be a terrifying creature, the makeup effects are wonderfully humane and tinged with a sadness that's ultimately appealing. Cocteau, a poet and painter, brings a sense of visual poetry to the screen. Insisting that "poetry is precision," Cocteau avoids the soft focus fuzziness of most fantasy films to deliver something vivid and sharp in all its details.

It’s also rapturously beautiful. His simple yet elegant effects employ real actors as part of the castle’s ornate décor so that arms hold out candles to light Belle’s way. In his prologue, he asks us to approach the film like a child, but the request is unnecessary -- he draws the child out of us and makes us stare up in wonder and delight at the world he has creates.
Bonus Pick: A difficult to find but visually breathtaking film from the Czech Republic, Wild Flowers (2000). A series of tales loosely strung together by folklore and themes, this film conveys the danger and beauty of traditional fairy tales. Keep your eyes open for this one.