The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). 17 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès and Bleuette Bernon.
Together with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Kingdom of the Fairies is one of Georges Méliès’s most impressive silent short films. The story is of the variety that Méliès loved, involving an epic journey, fierce magical creatures, and a grand final spectacle with a parade. The plot, which is fairly simple, is enhanced by the beautiful and inventive visuals that Méliès incorporates throughout the film, and the movie as a whole functions as a kind of catalogue of the various special effects that Méliès was fond of using. Its elaborate sets and complex techniques are fascinating, and overall the film is one of Méliès’s best.
The movie begins in a royal palace with a prince and princess, whose betrothal ceremony we witness. An evil male witch materializes in the middle of the court, menaces the couple, and disappears in fire. Later, when the princess is in bed, she is snatched up by the witch and his accompanying fairies and taken to the fairy kingdom. The prince sees her being led away, and with the help of a female spirit embarks on a sea journey to retrieve the princess. His ship crashes, and he and his men are rescued by the spirit. The prince comes to the kingdom of the fairies, saves the princess from a burning building, and destroy’s the witch’s staff. Back home, the prince and princess are received in a triumph.
The Kingdom of the Fairies makes imaginative use of a variety of special effects and scenic devices to create its fantastic world. Over the course of the movie’s 17-minute running time, Méliès employs miniatures, movable sets, a cut-out whale that swallows actors and sprays water, a collapsing set with smoke and fire effects, cross-fades, superimposed images, substitution splicing, and even a good old traditional trapdoor. The elaborate and layered nature of the staging is perhaps all the more striking because Méliès has (like nearly all filmmakers of his time) positioned the camera square in the middle of the set and left it stationary, and all of the scenes are filmed in one shot. The result is a film that feels very busy, but not because the camera is busy. Instead the shots brim with movement and activity created not merely by human actors but also by the physical and non-human elements that make up the mise-en-scène.
One of the most wonderful things about Méliès’s films is that when we watch them, we can see him working things out, trying to impress us with these technical tricks and stunts. But just as Méliès has a love of special effects, he also exhibits a general fondness for anything ornate. Consider the triumphs and pageants Méliès included at his film’s conclusions. The Kingdom of the Fairies offers us a final outdoor parade followed by a baroque interior set with an elaborate architectural scheme. In rolling panoramas, elaborate pieces of flat scenery are peeled away to disclose concealed compartments where the central and supporting characters are revealed sitting or standing motionless, until gradually the whole court is on display, and a troupe of ballet dancers arrives to perform in a celebratory flourish. The finale underscores the way that display and embellishment are necessary ingredients in Mélièsian storytelling, as worthy of documentation by the camera as the adventure and exploration that drives the plot.
The plot itself is relatively simple and easy to follow—boy is betrothed to girl, loses girl, journeys to rescue girl, and reigns over the kingdom with her. The quest to retrieve her is global and interstellar: the fairies travel on a cloud bridge to their kingdom, the prince travels through the sea, traversing its bottom, aided by a spirit. She serves as a counterpoint to the evil witch, a hunched-over, hooded man tinted green who thwarts the prince, steals the girl, summons the fairy hordes, sets fires, and generally raises hell. We can discern the witch and the guiding spirit all right—they are dressed so differently from the rest and behave uniquely—but there is not much of an opportunity to get to know the other characters or tell them apart with much precision. This is not merely because the film is short but because the emphasis of the screen time is so markedly on the evolution of the movie’s layered visual fantasy.
The best thing about this movie could be the colorful fairies doing their demonic jigs as they make off with the princess—their green and red shading is reminiscent of the tinted stereographic diableries popular in France approximately forty years before Méliès released this film. Or maybe it is the wonderful cut-out whale that carries grown men from the bottom of the sea to the rocky surface, spouting jets of water as it rises. Or perhaps we think of the astonishing moments when we see underwater silhouettes of living fish, lobsters, and crabs as the spirit guide leads the prince and his men along the ocean floor. Admittedly, we have seen real fish superimposed over the aquatic scene in A Trip to the Moon. But look at what else is going on in the water sequence in The Kingdom of the Fairies: in addition to the live sea animals, there is also a puppet octopus in the background, jiggled by someone from below or behind the set. It is silly and crude, yet tremendously delightful. I always smile when I see it.
That to me sums up so much of what I love about Méliès’s films and what makes The Kingdom of the Fairies so special. It aims to fascinate and surprise us with precocious special effects that must have been challenging to arrange, yet at the same time it puts its technical prowess aside to focus wholly on delighting us with the simple and the cute, things that we suspect we could possibly also design and manufacture ourselves, with a little skill and luck. When we look at The Kingdom of the Fairies, we know that everything in it was handmade by Méliès and his crew and that the relationship between the filmmaker and what we see being manipulated on screen is close and intense. Méliès is thus capturing an experience on film that many modern movies making use of astonishing and cutting-edge technology nevertheless cannot offer. Part of the fun of his short films lies in our recognition of the hand-manipulated puppet, the cut-out plywood sea creature.
The more I see of Méliès’s work, the more enchanted I become with his signature style and preoccupations. I think it is a shame that he did not have more of a lasting influence on the burgeoning movie industry, both in terms of style and content. I hope that seeing his short adventurous masterpieces may someday inspire someone to move film in a similar direction again. There is probably no better example of a twentieth-century filmmaker who was committed to exploring the geographies of wonder that are the foundation of cinema.
The Kingdom of the Fairies can be streamed for free here.