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Fairy Tales Invade Theaters: Hollywood’s New Superheroes?

”Cinderella“ and pals are mounting a princess-powered challenge to the spandex set

Disney is taking “Cinderella” to the box office ball on Friday, and its live-action take on the classic fairy tale is expected to run up grosses that would make Superman, Spidey or Wolverine proud.

But don’t expect the glass-slippered gal and her storybook pals to replace superheroes as the heaviest box office hitters any time soon, say the experts.

Fairy tale movies like “Maleficent” and “Alice in Wonderland” have proven that the genre can deliver returns rich enough for Hollywood film executives to live happily ever after. And short of embedding a computer chip into the neck of every pre-teen girl in America, Disney couldn’t possibly harness more “princess power” than it has with “Cinderella” and the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson.

So it’s understandable that some have suggested “fairy tales are the new superheroes” at the movies.

They are not. And there are plenty of reasons:

aliice in wonderlandStorybook sequels are much tougher

This is a big one. Superheroes mainly come from serialized comic books, which provide a farm system of episodic content that regularly percolates up to the movie level. Disney’s “Iron Man 3” ($1.2 billion), Warner Bros.’s “The Dark Knight Rises” ($1.08 million) and Sony’s “Spider-Man 3” ($890 million) are three of the four highest-grossing superhero movies ever globally. “Marvel’s The Avengers” is No. 1 at $1.5 billion.

Fairy tales, by contrast, are singular antiquities. “Alice in Wonderland” made 3D cool and took in $1.02 billion back in 2010, when Johnny Depp was still a star. But it will have taken Disney six years to get back down the rabbit hole when its follow-up, “Through the Looking Glass,” arrives next year.

There are practical reasons a fairy tale sequel wouldn’t feel organic. You don’t have to re-invent the characters if you decide to set your “X-Men” sequel in a new galaxy, but that wouldn’t work with Hansel and Gretel. (Note to Paramount execs: that was not intended as a challenge.)


snow whiteCaped crusaders enjoy broader bases

Superhero movies comprise three of the four biggest opening weekends, the leader being “The Avengers” ($207 million), the runner-up “Iron Man 3” ($174 million) and fourth-place going to “The Dark Knight Rises” ($161 million). You don’t put up numbers like that without drawing men and women, young and old.

Conversely, “princess power” is what will primarily drive “Cinderella.” But only a very few films –“Fifty Shades of Grey” is one — can make it without a least of a degree of gender crossover. One of the better recent fairy tale openings resulted in part from the engagement of a surprisingly high percentage of males. They made up 53 percent of the crowd when Universal Pictures’ “Snow White and the Huntsman” debuted at $56 million in June of 2012. That’s why the movie had bloody battle scenes, though the original fairy tale didn’t.

Males between the ages of 18 and 35 remain the gold standard for movie target demos, and superhero movies are that group’s first choice. Fanboys typically drive the grosses for superhero movies on their first and second nights in release, but after that the biggest hits draw mainly couples and families.


iron man dialogue

Talking the talk

Classic story lines demand that fairy tale folks say stuff like, “Let down your hair, Rapunzel,” or “Who’s the fairest of them all?” If that’s your idea of a bon mot, you’re probably not ready to trade barbs with a peeved Peter Parker or Robert Downey Jr.‘s high-rolling Tony Stark. By definition, fairy tales have been handed down through generations over centuries. That doesn’t make for snappy dialogue. Word.


hard candyIt gets hairy when fairy tales get scary

With a fairy tale, you really can’t write, say, a heavily armed talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper into the script, as “Guardians of the Galaxy” did with great success last summer. Writers and directors have more creative leeway with superheroes because they’re not bound by hoary story lines, as the classics are.

That said, it’s a good bet that the live-action “Little Mermaid” that Sofia Coppola is developing for Universal Pictures won’t be ho-hum.

Sometimes fairy tales are re-imagined so profoundly that they’re hardly recognizable. Were the Brothers Grimm to catch David Slade’s disturbing and R-rated “Hard Candy,” in which a teen girl (Ellen Page) gives an ill-intentioned photographer what he deserves and then some, they might not see it as a version of their “The Red Cap.” But we’re pretty sure they’d like it.



Timing is everything … and nothing

The lines between fairytales, myths, fantasy and superheroes can blur. Just as the best popular songs endure and become classics, some of today’s superheroes could well become tomorrow’s fairy tales. And some of it is just a matter of timing. Had Marvel founder Stan Lee and Steve Ditko lived six or seven centuries ago, the Troubled Lad with Eight Legs would still be a character we’d all know and love.

And Disney would have the live-action version in the works.