What The 10th Kingdom Got Right

In the year 2000, NBC decided to try something that had never been done before. They released a five-part miniseries with an original story that was centered around the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The series was called The Tenth Kingdom. It was so good that NBC decided to do absolutely nothing with it, despite hinting at the possibility of a sequel in the final voice-over narration. When has NBC ever kept a good series going, anyway? Still, fans have not forgotten this beautiful and whimsical tale. Though other forms of media have attempted similar projects, including ABC's 2011 drama, Once Upon a Time, nothing has quite lived up to the epic and dream-like quality of The Tenth Kingdom.

The miniseries stars a guarded young woman name Virginia Lewis (played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley) who works as a waitress in New York City. After she crashes into an enchanted dog with her bike, she and her father walk through a portal inside a magic mirror to enter the world of the Nine Kingdoms, where fairy tale characters once prospered. The reign of the wicked queen has turned the kingdoms into a bit of a dystopia, but there's still enchantment around every corner. Also, the wicked queen is actually the dog's stepmother, and the dog is really the grandson of Snow White who she cursed. Crazy, right? That's just the first episode! It gets even weirder, but I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it.

Much like Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time, Virginia has abandonment issues from her mother leaving her as a child. Unlike Emma, Virginia is not so jaded by the real world that she can't appreciate the wonder and magic that the Nine Kingdoms have to offer, giving us a chance to appreciate it through her eyes. She is guided by a charismatic werewolf named Wolf. With a nearly eight hour long run time, this series is able to flesh out a more convincing love story than most shorter films with similar themes. Virgina and Wolf's relationship goes through many trials and tribulations so the final payoff feels well-earned.

Once Upon a Time refers to the fairy tale realm as the "Enchanted Forest," is extremely vague about how the realm works, and creates additional realms whenever it's convenient to the plot. The 10th Kingdom has a fully realized universe. The title is a reference to a scene in the series where some trolls from the Nine Kingdoms discover New York City and refer to it as "The Tenth Kingdom" because trolls are silly and don't know any better. The course of the miniseries takes us through each of the nine wondrous kingdoms. There is a kingdom of trolls, a kingdom of farmers and shepherdesses (where Little Bo Peep is from), and a kingdom of dwarfs, just to name a few. My personal favorite was the Kissing Town, a sparkly medieval version of Las Vegas, complete with cheesy cartoon hearts and butterflies floating around wherever there are lovers.

The way this series incorporates fairy tales into the plot is quite brilliant. Most of the famous princesses that we're familiar with went on to become great rulers and have long since passed. Cinderella makes an appearance by Ann-Margaret as a 200-year-old queen who supposedly had lots of "magical plastic surgery" to keep her youthful appearance. Unlike any other version I've seen with the sole exception of the controversial upcoming Red Shoes movie, Snow White is portrayed by a plus-sized actress. She makes her appearance as a ghost-like vision played by the Camryn Manheim. Her performance as the fairest one of all is extremely believable. The music and setting lock in this scene as an emotional high point in the miniseries. It's very refreshing to see such a famous character in a new way, and it's a shame that so few other fairy tale adaptations have followed this example.

Aside from those two iconic princesses, all of the other fairy tale references are woven organically into the main plot, unlike ABC's famous fairy tale drama, which tends to be disjointed and episodic. For instance, Wolf tries to cook Virginia's grandmother after he steps through the portal to New York, but we know he's not really the Big Bad Wolf and that he isn't actually going to eat her. It's just a fun reference to Little Red Riding Hood. Virginia later gets cast under a Rapunzel curse for helping some birds. Her hair grows painfully long, and Wolf must use his knowledge of the original tale to get to Virginia when she is trapped at the top of a tree with her endless locks. There is even a reference to the actual Brothers Grimm toward the end.

There are several other stories about princesses from the fairy tale world traveling to New York City, but this one seems to have been the first. Verdugo Comics released Fables in 2002 about the iconic fairy tale characters living discreetly in Manhattan. It is a much darker take on fairy tale adaptations, and no one that I am particularly fond of. Though The 10th Kingdom was made for an older audience than Disney's animated features, I thought it found the perfect balance between dark and light storytelling. It is unsettling and emotional, but comedic and hopeful at the same time. Later, in 2006, Disney's Enchanted introduced the world of Andalasia in which Princess Giselle fell through a portal and ended up in the Big Apple. The more time she spent in the real world, the more "real" she became as a person, making Andalasia and all of its citizens feel flat in comparison. Conversely, The 10th Kingdom introduced a very believable complex world that just happens to also have magic.

So, what exactly did The 10th Kingdom get right? For one thing, it was in many ways the first of its kind. Everything that came after could have easily been an imitation. Next, it set the perfect tone to play the audience's emotional heartstrings while keeping them engaged with humor and charismatic characters. Finally, unlike Once Upon a Time, which lost its direction long ago and yet was still renewed for a seventh season despite half the cast leaving, The 10th Kingdom knew exactly what it was doing. It told a perfect original fairy tale story from beginning to end, full of romance, adventure, and fun. If you haven't seen it yet and have eight hours to kill, I highly recommend checking it out.


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