In a schoolyard in London, a group of children is playing a game of catch-the-boy-and-kiss-him. Ten-year-old Emme decides to kiss another girl instead, causing an uproar with her classmates. When informed by the school of what Emme has done, her parents force her to admit the kiss was a mistake, making the little girl sad and uncertain.
Meanwhile, the Grand High Council of Fairy Tale Rules and Standards is dealing with an errant narrator, Hammond, who insists on altering his tales to offer the children who read them the true lessons they need. Hammond is assigned Emme’s case and told he must narrate the story exactly as it is written or else risks losing his magical tongue, which gives him the ability to speak.
Delightful and surprising, this immensely charming fantasy short — directed by Ali Scher from a script co-written by Scher and Joe Swanson — possesses the traditional components of the fairy tale film: a fair maiden, a knight, a fairy godmother all play significant roles in the story, and there’s even a musical number. But with irreverent, zany wit and a great dose of compassion, it subverts those conventions to fashion a more inclusive and terrifically funny story for a modern age, keeping the pleasures of the genre while both deepening and broadening them.
The film possesses an unusually wide-ranging narrative structure for a short, incorporating and intersecting two characters’ stories and a tale-within-a-tale while uniting both with almost Monty Pythonesque touches and deadpan one-liners. Similarly, its stylistic palette is adventurous and free-wheeling, rendering Emme’s more realistic story with mannerist touches similar to early Wes Anderson and juxtaposing it with the more classical fantasy world of Hammond’s story, with its rich shadows and vivid saturated colors.
With such creative ambition and risk-taking, the film could easily over-extend itself, but it deftly balances its rich layers with a clear sense of mission, never losing sight of Emme’s story and her needs as a character. All elements of the craft, storytelling and world-building are geared to offer Emme, via Hammond’s narrative aims, a story to affirm who she is and restore her sense of wholeness and authenticity.
By being coerced to label her kiss as an accident, she is forced to disown herself from her own truth. It’s the first crack in her sense of self, and actor Tallulah Wayman-Harris’s performance subtly captures this initial flicker of doubt and uncertainty, shading it with sadness and hinting at how it can widen into deeper inner chasms of self-alienation. Actor David Anders, who plays Hammond, ably balances the demands of a more heightened and stylized fantasy performance with the emotional clarity of a caring grown-up figure — one who sees his charge struggling, and knows what she needs to restore her confidence and sense of being comfortable in her own skin.
Like the best children’s stories, “The Maiden and the Princess” — which also features a performance by veteran actor Julian Sands and a vocal appearance by Megan Hilty — balances quick-witted and quick-moving fun with a certain emotional coherence. The themes are unusually multi-layered and variegated, with much to say about being the author of one’s own story and celebrating inclusivity and difference.
The film is able to balance many themes because it never loses sight of just why storytelling is so important, especially at an early age. Like the best of storytelling for children, it holds the different poles of moral clarity and humanist complexity at the same time and recognize that for many, stories sometimes allow us space for our innermost selves to be seen and heard, and accepted for what we are. When Emme’s narrative concludes with a triumphant reclaiming of her story, it’s not unlike the ways we learn to reclaim the lost parts of ourselves, in all their rightness and truth.