Fairytales are a type of story within the broader fantasy genre that have always been popular to retell in movie form. Fairytales tend to be easy to understand, often originated many years ago, and have a certain appeal to children, with fairytale stories being among the first many ever hear, when they’re young. Such stories are often distinguished by their fantastical lands, imaginary creatures, and being set in a world where magic exists.
Despite the appeal to kids, not all fairytales by definition are suitable for children, nor even aimed at children. The following 10 movies all broadly fit within the definition of a fairytale movie, yet probably aren’t the kinds of fantasy movies you’d want to show young children. Some of the following are dark retellings of classic fairytales, while others take the ingredients of traditional fairytales and upgrade them in more modern ways that are more suited to older viewers.
Updated on March 16, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio has recently found success at the 2023 Oscars, winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. It’s as good a time as any to revisit the darker kind of fairytale it tells, by looking at similar films, some of which are also directed by Del Toro. Dark fantasy stories found in these sorts of dark fairy tale movies offer an interesting contrast to more traditional, more light-hearted fairy tale retellings.
1 ‘Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio’ (2022)
Far from Guillermo Del Toro’s only dark fairytale movie, his 2022 adaptation of the classic Pinocchio story might well be his most obvious take on a fairytale. After all, the story of a wooden puppet who comes to life is a well-known one, and perhaps best-known in modern pop culture thanks to the classic Disney animated film from 1940 (which itself got a live-action remake that happened to come out just months before Del Toro’s).
The stop-motion animation is quite astounding, the visuals sometimes unsettling, and the themes explored in Del Toro’s Pinocchio surprisingly dark. It’s the way Del Toro uses this well-known story to explore deeper topics – like grief, the rise of Fascism in pre-WW2 Italy, and death – that makes it unsuitable for younger viewers, even if it also somewhat confusingly has musical numbers and comedic relief that do feel aimed at kids.
2 ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1995)
The City of Lost Children is a movie that’s as fantastical and odd as it is dark and disturbing. It takes place in a strange, nightmarish world where a scientist is hellbent on kidnapping children to steal their dreams, which he believes will stop him from growing older.
It blurs the line between fantasy and science-fiction in an undeniably interesting way, and succeeds in being a movie that feels more than a little off for its entire runtime. Even if some children were okay with the violence and tense sequences within the film, it’s unlikely the story or the world the film takes place in would be particularly appealing to them.
3 ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ (2022)
Though George Miller is best known for directing the Mad Max series, he’s also been behind plenty of other interesting movies. One of those was the underrated and misunderstood 2022 film Three Thousand Years of Longing, an ambitious fantasy movie aimed at adults, with fantastic visuals and compelling lead performances from Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba.
It takes a look at the idea of telling stories, with Elba’s character recalling his life to Swinton’s, all the while the two fall for each other. It’s an interesting look at fairytale-like stories and the appeal they have to this day, though it tells such stories in a way that’s aimed at adult audiences, rather than younger viewers.
4 ‘The Fall’ (2006)
An exploration of the power of fairytales and storytelling more broadly, The Fall focuses on a patient who befriends a young girl while in hospital, and tells her a sweeping story of adventure and fantasy. Its basic setup and structure are therefore comparable to The Princess Bride, but otherwise, the two films are very different.
As the storyteller’s health and outlook on life worsen, his story gets darker, leading to some violent and upsetting scenes. What starts as a fairytale ends up subverting the genre’s typical tropes in many ways, but it still works as both a movie that tells a fairytale and celebrates the telling of fantasy stories – just in a darker way than most.
5 ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1946)
There’s no shortage of movie adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, but few are quite as distinct, memorable, and eerie as the 1946 retelling. It’s not too extreme in its content, but does have some unsettling visuals, mainly thanks to how the Beast himself looks, as well as what’s contained inside his castle.
The film also labels itself as one aimed at adults in its opening titles, given it states: “Children believe what we tell them… I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy,” as if asking older viewers to approach the movie’s fantasy storyline as a child might. It’s fair to say younger viewers wouldn’t need to be told that, and also that the film’s more mature – and scary – take on what’s sometimes a family-friendly story might not appeal to the youngest of kids.
6 ‘Swiss Army Man’ (2016)
The Daniels are a directorial team made up of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who’ve recently been behind the massively successful Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). Several years before that film’s release, they made Swiss Army Man, another offbeat and unusual film with a distinct sense of humor that didn’t quite find the success of their 2022 film.
It’s not the easiest movie in the world to describe, but is all the better for that reason. It’s a surreal fantasy/comedy that takes fairytale tropes and modernizes them, particularly in the way it utilizes crude/gross-out humor, which isn’t something one would normally associate with a fairytale narrative.
7 ‘Alice’ (1988)
The story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a pretty creepy one, when you think about it. It may have been toned down enough to be (mostly) child-friendly in 1951, thanks to Disney, but the fairytale itself is still incredibly surreal and frightening, considering it centers on a young girl who gets trapped in a strange and dangerous fantasy realm where real-world logic and rules don’t seem to exist.
The 1988 film adaptation of the story, simply titled Alice, makes the original fairytale even creepier. It combines live-action with stop-motion animation in a very unsettling way, contains a rabbit who looks like he’s made out of a real taxidermized rabbit, and plenty of skeletal creatures for good measure. Children will almost definitely get nightmares from it, and some adults might, too.
8 ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth might well be the best film directed by Guillermo Del Toro, which is really saying something, considering his body of work. It’s a dark fantasy fairytale that’s not adapted from a classic one, even if it might take inspiration from them, telling a story about a young girl who escapes to a grim fantasy world because real life is even harsher and more nightmarish.
The look and feel of the fantastical scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth are hard to forget, even long after you’ve finished watching the movie. The scenes depicting life in Fascist Spain during the 1940s are similarly hard-hitting, with the contrast of brutal reality and nightmarish fantasy leaving a powerful impression. It’s not for kids, because of how dark and violent it can get, but is a must-watch for older viewers.
9 ‘Angel’s Egg’ (1985)
Angel’s Egg is an almost experimental Japanese animated film, and has very little by way of narrative or characters. It takes place in a desolate, seemingly post-apocalyptic world, and follows a young girl who carries a large egg with her around this landscape for reasons that never seem quite clear.
The effect is eerie, and the film overall has a very otherworldly feel to it. Its confusing, dark nature makes it one animated fantasy movie that decidedly isn’t aimed at kids, but serious fans of animation will likely find things to appreciate within it, and it’s the kind of movie that would fit neatly into the Criterion Collection, should it ever be added to it.
10 ‘The Wolf House’ (2018)
Another dark, modern interpretation of the fairytale genre that’s not an adaptation of a classic storyline, The Wolf House might well be one of the scariest animated movies of all time. Its style of animation is hard to describe, as it incorporates numerous types of animation within three-dimensional, “live-action” sets, creating an entirely unique viewing experience.
The animation is beyond surreal, and the story it tells is incredibly dark, focusing on a young girl who hides in a strange house after escaping from a dangerous cult. Things start grim and unnerving, and continually get worse as the film goes on, making it one animated movie that’s definitely not suitable for young viewers.
11 ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999)
If Tim Burton‘s take on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow can be counted as a fairytale, then it would have to be among the grimmest out there. Sleepy Hollow is about Ichabod Crane investigating a series of murders allegedly committed by a feared Headless Horseman, being something of a crime/detective story combined with dark fairytale images and tropes.
With a story about a murderer who decapitates his victims, some violence is expected, but Burton really goes the extra step here and makes Sleepy Hollow a very bloody movie. Even some squeamish older viewers might not like the level of violence on display, which adds to the overall grim atmosphere already established by the film’s story and visuals.
12 ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (2017)
The gritty Tigers Are Not Afraid follows several children who are stuck in a world ravaged by drug cartels and gang warfare. It’s a story of survival more than anything else, and takes on the feel of a horror movie at times due to the situation the characters are in, and the darkness of the place where they’re forced to live within.
As far as dark fairytales go, it would have to be one of the bleakest. Additionally, just because it features children in the main roles certainly doesn’t mean it’s for children, with the level of violence and the foreboding atmosphere being comparable to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, rather than a more traditional fairytale that may feature young characters in some amount of peril.
13 ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017)
While The Shape of Water might not lean into fairytale motifs as heavily as other movies made by Guillermo Del Toro, it still retains enough of those fantastical qualities to give it a fairytale feel. In this story about a mute woman who falls in love with a strange amphibious creature, there are certainly allusions to classic fairytales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
Del Toro also ties these fantastical aspects to a tumultuous period in history, as he often likes to do, with The Shape of Water being set during the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s. It’s strange, a little confronting, and quite violent, though also moving and unique, as far as modern-day takes on fairytales go.
14 ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997)
Princess Mononoke blends fantasy, adventure, and even some action into its unique spin on the fairytale sub-genre, also telling an explicitly pro-environmental story in the process. It tells the story of a young man who goes on a quest to find a cure for a unique disease he’s contracted, only to be swept up in a conflict between an industrial village and forces within a neighboring forest.
As far as Hayao Miyazaki movies go, it’s one of his darker ones, getting emotionally heavy and surprisingly violent at certain points. There are more family-friendly fantasy movies directed by Miyazaki that are worth watching, at least, with Princess Mononoke being a good one for slightly older viewers.