An orphan is mistreated by a cruel surrogate family. The orphan is special, however, and with the intervention of kind and magical parental substitutes, rises to dizzying heights and achieves a happy ending. It’s a familiar tale, from “Cinderella” to Harry Potter —the difference is all in the details. In two fairy tale films of the 1980s and 1990s, those details remove the Cinderella story from the realm of fantasy. Ashpet and Ever After take pains to “realize” Cinderella—to remove almost all elements of magic and fantasy and to imagine, instead, what might make such a story real. Both incorporate a tale-teller and historical detail to do so, and both, in the process, uncover elements of the tale that may reclaim it for modern viewers. Drawing on a variety of Cinderella themes, both Tom Davenport’s Ashpet, in his film of the same name, and Ever After’s Danielle de Barbarac engineer their own destinies, with the significant help of an elder, a storyteller or an artist rather than a magician. Neither becomes that antifeminist archetype analyzed by Karen Rowe and other feminist critics, the passive recipient of the prince’s favor. Both stories are also framed by storytelling devices that serve to place the tales in a specific historical time and place; rather than once upon a time, these tales take place then and there, and are bridged to our here and now by the tellers who introduce them. These films replace Cinderella’s central image of female competition with one of the storyteller as a guide to young women. In so doing, they foreground the telling of the tale itself— they become, as it were, meta-tales which, as they tell the tale, also ask us to reflect on what we do as we tell the tales ourselves. The audience thus becomes a part of the meaning of the tale, focusing our attention on the power of narrative to shape our interpretations of reality.

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Copyright © 2003 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article fist appeared in Children's Literature 31 (2003), 142-154.