The Aquatic Allure of The Kingdom of Fairies
Note: This is the twenty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1903 film, THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES, directed by Georges Méliès.
Georges Méliès essentially made one incredibly important “epic” every year, really beginning with CINDERELLA in 1899. JOAN OF ARC (1900), BLUEBEARD (1901), and then, of course, A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), each iterated upon the more dramatic and elaborate concepts Méliès would concentrate into select films in between the avalanche of simple and novel trick films. These epics, which never reached feature length but nevertheless pushed the envelope and scope of contemporary film, have been overshadowed by Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece, and that perhaps most regrettable when it comes to THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES (1903).
A lot of Méliès “purists” (or contrarians) cite THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES as his best film, even better than A TRIP TO THE MOON. While I don’t agree (A TRIP TO THE MOON is my favorite Méliès film, safe choice or not), THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES sure does come close. It has a different pace, and despite Méliès’ general féerie style that runs throughout all his films, THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES began a more elaborate fantasy style that followed in the wake of A TRIP TO THE MOON’s proto-sci-fi, mechanical, and alien visuals. THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES, by comparison, looks like a much more traditional fantasy film, but with a level of detail pulled from the building of prior epics.
And, in terms of its plot, THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES progresses like any kind of fantasy story. A betrothed prince and princess are separated when a witch abducts the latter; the former, of course, organizes his followers to go rescue her. What’s interesting about this otherwise expected set up is Méliès’ use of the witch as an identifiable villain. The film’s 15 minute runtime, and the witch’s tendency to pop up after each little bout of action the prince and his crew engage in, solidifies the character as a memorable and threatening presence, a slightly more nuanced portrayal of antagonism in Méliès’ book.
Otherwise, the film’s opening sequence, and closing one for that matter, aren’t really what make it shine. The set up goes on a little too long, and the finale is amusing but fairly conventional and serviceable, although watching the prince squash the witch into a barrel and throw it over a cliff is a pretty good time, honestly. But it’s what these bookends surround, as is the case with most movies, that makes THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES special.
See, Méliès started to take on aquatic scenes quite often post-A TRIP TO THE MOON, for whatever reason. They show up in a lot of the films of his later career, and it really started with THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES. The aquatic sequence of the film begins with a brilliant shipwreck scene just after the heroes depart their home. The scene is brought to life with miniature sets and models, and the hand-tinted color of the stormy, active sky is a beautiful complement to the tragedy unfolding beneath it.
The heroes find themselves in a magical underwater world populated by merpeople and other assorted water spirits and sprites, and it’s awesome. Footage of fish is imposed over the underwater scenes, which is somewhat out of focus and strangely proportioned, but it ultimately does what it’s intended to do: make you feel like you’re underwater. The natural rhythms of the real fish do make the action feel like it’s taking place underwater, and they actually draw attention to the incredible art direction going on with the crusty and intricate sets.
The aquatic sequence of THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES feels the most natural and “lived in” set of all of Méliès’ films while remaining incredibly theatrical and larger than life. The artistry allows the ethereal and strange movements of the water fairies and various underwater creature puppets/stage props/people-in-suits to really shine. It’s a dream-like, bizarre, and relaxing sequence sandwiched into the typical manic and over-the-top action of a Méliès film, brought to a conclusion by an imposing yet assuring whale fixture. The whale is the coolest single piece of design in the whole film, and despite it being a wooden (?) rolling set piece, it has its own personality and presence. In that, the whale really embodies what Méliès does best: injecting personality and magic into limited set spaces, objects, and technology.
THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES, unlike A TRIP TO THE MOON, has some dips from brilliance, but when its artistry and set design are at their best, it accentuates the action and instills memorable moments that leave a lasting, abstract, and somehow relaxing impression. The general plot is typical and serviceable enough, which only makes the standout, moving aquatic experience all the more exceptional. THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES is a worthy and otherworldly followup epic to A TRIP TO THE MOON, and proved Méliès was still the director of the time as increasingly complex and realistic films were starting to be produced.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.