Art and Film,  Quick Takes

Ten Films from Faёrie for Young and Old Alike

Quick Take

Stories that are actually concerned primarily with “fairies,” that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called “elves,” are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faёrie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

Fantasy and fairy tales are sometimes derided by the more realistically minded as “escapist.” However, J.R.R. Tolkien believed that while fairy stories do help us “escape,” the escape they offer is of a particular kind. It is not an ultimate retreat from the world but a temporary withdrawal leading to a recovery from world-weariness. As he writes in “On Fairy Stories:”

We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish. Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view … We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.

Below are ten modern fairy tales told through the medium of animation and film. If the weather keeps you inside some evening this midsummer and you’re looking for a source of reenchantment, try “escaping” in order to “recover” with one of these films.

The first seven here are for children of all ages, the last three for childlike adults only.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) directed by John Sayles
Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is a young Irish girl with an unusual family history, including a long-missing baby brother. When she goes to live with her grandparents on the west coast of Ireland, Fiona hears stories about her ancestors, tales that involve mythical creatures called selkies who can shift from seal to human form. After Fiona ends up on the small island of Roan Inish, her family’s ancestral home, she believes she may have found her little brother living by the sea.

The Secret of Kells (2009) directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey
In the remote Irish woods, Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) prepares a fortress for an impending attack by a Viking war party. Unbeknown to Cellach, his young nephew Brendan (Evan McGuire) — who has no taste for battle — works secretly as an apprentice in the scriptorium of the local monastery, learning the ancient art of calligraphy. As the Vikings approach, revered illuminator Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives at the monastery and recruits Brendan to complete a series of dangerous, magical tasks.

Song of the Sea (2014) directed by Tomm Moore
An Irish youth (David Rawle) discovers that his mute sister is a selkie who must find her voice and free supernatural creatures from the spell of a Celtic goddess (Fionnula Flanagan).

Wolfwalkers (2020) directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
In a time of superstition and magic, when wolves are seen as demonic and nature an evil to be tamed, a young apprentice hunter, Robyn, comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack. But when Robyn saves a wild native girl, Mebh, their friendship leads her to discover the world of the Wolfwalers and transform her into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.

Spirited Away (2001) directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In this animated feature by noted Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents (Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi) stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku (Miyu Irino), who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm, and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.

The Boy and the Heron (2023) directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Mahito, a young 12-year-old boy, struggles to settle in a new town after his mother’s death. However, when a talking heron informs Mahito that his mother is still alive, he enters an abandoned tower in search of her, which takes him to another world.

The Red Turtle (2016) directed by Michael Dudok de Wit
Exhausted by the towering waves of the furious ocean, a shipwrecked mariner washes ashore on a deserted tropical island. There, a serene heaven on earth awaits him; the isle’s sandy beaches, timid animal inhabitants, and a gracefully swaying bamboo forest are only some of its unseen wonders. That’s all very well, but the tranquil haven isn’t home. As the days turn into weeks, the marooned sailor contemplates escape, jaded by the islet’s sun-kissed euphoria. Now, he only needs a small raft to flee the Eden-like prison. But as the seasoned seaman embarks on a perilous quest for liberty in the open sea, an indistinguishable adversary prevents him from leaving.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) directed by Peter Weir (Young Viewer Discretion Advised)
In the early 1900s, Miranda (Anne Lambert) attends a girls boarding school in Australia. One Valentine’s Day, the school’s typically strict headmistress (Rachel Roberts) treats the girls to a picnic field trip to an unusual but scenic volcanic formation called Hanging Rock. Despite rules against it, Miranda and several other girls venture off.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) directed by Guillermo del Toro (Young Viewer Discretion Advised)
It’s 1944 and the Allies have invaded Nazi-held Europe. In Spain, a troop of soldiers are sent to a remote forest to flush out the rebels. They are led by Capitan Vidal, a murdering sadist, and with him are his new wife Carmen and her daughter from a previous marriage, 11-year-old Ofelia. Ofelia witnesses her stepfather’s sadistic brutality and is drawn into Pan’s Labyrinth, a magical world of mythical beings.

Stalker (1982) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Young Viewer Discretion Advised)
In an unnamed country at an unspecified time, there is a fiercely protected post-apocalyptic wasteland known as The Zone. An illegal guide (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky), whose mutant child suggests unspeakable horrors within The Zone, leads a writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolay Grinko) into the heart of the devastation in search of a mythical place known only as The Room. Anyone who enters The Room will supposedly have any of his earthly desires immediately fulfilled.

Do you have a comment on of the films above or a fairy tale film of your own to recommend? Let us know in the comments!

header image: still from Hayao Miyazaki‘s Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli, 2001. (used in keeping with fair use policy)

Descriptions: The Secret of Roan Inish, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Stalker at; Spirited Away at Science on Screen, The Boy and the Heron at; The Red Turtle at; Pan’s Labyrinth at the National Hispanic Cultural Center;

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  • Jon Balsbaugh

    A conversation on the Classical Education Facebook Group led to the expansion of films appropriate for both children and adults:

    Faërie Films Appropriate for Children and Adults

    Tier One

    My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
    The Secret Garden (1993)
    The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
    Spirited Away (2001)
    The Secret of Kells (2009)
    The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
    Song of the Sea (2014)
    The Red Turtle (2016)
    Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
    Wolfwalkers (2020)
    The Boy and the Heron (2023)

    Tier Two

    The Last Unicorn (1982)
    Return to Oz (1985)
    The Dark Crystal (1982)
    The Neverending Story (1984)
    The Black Cauldron (1985)
    Labyrinth (1986)
    Jim Henson’s The StoryTeller (1987-89)
    Willow (1988)
    Peter Pan (2003)
    Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
    The Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
    Ponyo (2008)
    Coraline (2009)
    Over the Garden Wall (2014)

    One’s I Personally Have Queued Up to See

    Into the West (1992)
    Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)
    Azur et Asmar (2006)
    The Secret of Moonacre (2008)
    The Lost Town of Świteź (2010)
    Big Fish and Begonia (2016)
    A Whisker Away (2020)

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