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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Fairy Tale - A True Story
Fairy Tale - A True Story
Paramount // PG // November 11, 2003
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 19, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Fairy Tale: A True Story is the story of two British girls who claim to see fairies in the woods at the back of their home. In itself, that's easy enough for the adults to dismiss as childish fancy, but when the girls produce actual photographs of these fairies, a storm of attention brews up, drawing in such famous men as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, both profoundly interested in the supernatural and the paranormal. Fairy Tale is a cute movie, a reasonably entertaining piece that fits squarely into the "family entertainment" box. It's also a movie that feels like it wanted to be something more substantial.

When a modern eye looks at the "fairy photographs," they're so obviously faked that it's amazing that anyone believed in them for a moment. But they did: not just uneducated people, either, but educated and presumably intelligent people as well. Some of the answer lies in the novelty of the photographic process (we're much more familiar with it and aware of how photographs can be faked), but that's not the whole story. What made these photographs so compelling?

The film shows us part of the answer in the social context of the story: in the midst of World War I, popular culture in England and the United States became fascinated with "spiritualism" and "theosophy": various names for ideas about how people could communicate with the dead, or see angels and guardian spirits, and so on. It's no surprise, then, that the claim of actual photographic proof of fairies (and thus some sort of spiritual life beyond ordinary human experience) was taken up with such enthusiasm by devotees of spiritualism.

Another key part of the story is in the personalities of the key people involved, particularly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who is the prime mover in bringing the fairy photographs to the public eye. Conan Doyle is quite accurately portrayed in the film, as a kindly but gullible man, and one who was stuck in antiquated ideas about class; one telling line of dialogue has him comment that there was no way that two young and "working-class" girls could have faked the photos.

Again as in real life, Houdini (Harvey Keitel) is portrayed as the skeptic: as a master of illusion himself, Houdini was well aware of how seemingly "magic" occurrences could be faked, and devoted endless energy to exposing false mediums. However, the historical Houdini's exposés were motivated by his longing to communicate with his dead mother: he wanted to discover a medium who was not a fake, one who would truly let him speak with the dead and not just fool him into believing that he had. This aspect of Houdini's motivation is left unexplored in the film, although it would have formed a nice counterpart to Conan Doyle's willingness to rationalize just about anything if it bolstered his faith.

In a nice touch, the photographs that we see in the film are, in fact, the "real" photographs taken by the original two girls, including this most famous one:

In a sense, though, Fairy Tale chooses not to have the power that it could have, if it had really explored the ideas of the power of belief and how the desire to believe in something can blind people to the truth. It's the tension between truth and lies, the desire to believe and the desire to know the truth, that makes Fairy Tale an fascinating story. Unfortunately, as the film moves on into its last third, it moves away from exploring those interesting areas of the human heart, and sticks to a more conventional wish-fulfillment fantasy. The motivations and reactions of the girls aren't really developed, which isn't such a surprise considering that the film, at this point, is moving away from its basis in established fact and character, and toward a fantasy ending (in real life, the girls eventually admitted that they'd faked the images and explained how they'd done it). The plot thread of the investigative reporter is turned into a comic piece, which doesn't fit the tone of the film as a whole, and any potential loose ends are tied up neatly, leaving viewers nothing to wonder about. It's a light-weight and reasonably entertaining film, but I can't help wishing that the story of the "Cottingly Fairies" had been given a bit more depth.

The DVD

Video

Kudos should go to Paramount for doing what every studio should do: putting the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio, and not trying to palm off a pan-and-scan cut as "family friendly." Fairy Tale: A True Story appears in 1.85:1 widescreen, and is anamorphically enhanced. The image quality is excellent, with natural-looking colors, plenty of detail, a clean print, and solid contrast.

Audio

The soundtrack for Fairy Tale is not very demanding, as it's mostly dialogue-based with only a few surround-worthy moments. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is more than ample to provide a nicely clean and clear sound; a Dolby 2.0 and a dubbed French 2.0 track are also included, as are English subtitles.

Extras

There are no special features on this DVD.

Final thoughts

Fairy Tale: A True Story takes the fascinating history of the "fairy photographs" and uses it as a basis for a reasonably interesting family film. It could have been a lot more substantial, but even so it's a pleasant evening's viewing, and particularly for families with children in the age range of the characters (around 8-10) it's recommended.

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