Review: Rolf Kauka's Once Upon a Time

One of my readers informed me about Rolf Kauka's Once Upon a Time, an obscure German animated adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Frau Holle." After a quick search, I was pleased to discover that someone had uploaded a nostalgic VHS recording of the entire film on YouTube. The animation reminded me of the old Disney knock-off tapes I used to watch when I was a child, but the storytelling and music were several notches higher in quality. Since there are no other famous adaptations of this fairy tale, I can see that the filmmakers worked very hard to do it justice. They did a terrific job for the time period and what I can only assume was a humble budget. The story has a lot of heart and a unique presentation.

Rolf Kauka's Once Upon a Time

What sets Once Upon a Time apart from other animated fairy tales is that it completely excludes the protagonist from the first ten minutes of the movie. "Frau Holle," the story it is based on, is similar to "Cinderella" in the regard that they both feature an unfortunate girl whose widowed father remarries into a cruel family. Most adaptations of "Cinderella" and "Snow White" leave the audience to assume how the gold-digging stepmother could have convinced the innocent maiden's father to marry her. In this adaptation, we see exactly how it happened. Bottle, an old drunkard, is tricked into marrying a greedy fortune-teller after she predicts bad luck in his future unless he remarries right away. There's a bit of off-color humor when Bottle sees her much younger daughter, Mary Lou, and decides that she would be a good wife, but the manipulative old woman convinces him to marry her instead. After the deed is done, Bottle suddenly remembers that he has a daughter named Maria and worries about how he will tell her that she has a new mother and sister. This presentation shows us, rather than tells us, how Maria has been forgotten and mistreated for most of her life. Imagine being forgotten in your own story!

Maria's design closely resembles Disney's 1950 Cinderella, but I don't think they were trying to copy it directly. The animators probably just wanted to give a hint that both characters were similar in personality and background. The prince's design was unique for this type of film with shoulder-length red hair and oversized hats and jackets. Maria and the prince stand out as the only tall skinny people in their world, showing that they don't fit in with the society around them due to their more realistic proportions and facial features. Mary Lou is the only other character with similar proportions to Maria, but she has dark hair in contrast to Maria's light hair, something that older animated stories did to portray two heroines with opposing personalities. The musical sequences reminded me of Peter Beagle's 1982 animated adaptation of The Last Unicorn. There were '70s-style acoustic echoes and lots of guitars. The love song particularly mirrored the one from The Last Unicorn, though I found Once Upon a Time's "Maria" a lot catchier than "That's All I've Got to Say" and got it stuck in my head several times.

The second half of Once Upon a Time covers the rest of the "Frau Holle" fairy tale, which bears a strong resemblance to "The Fairies" by Charles Perrault. Both stories portray two sisters that encounter a fairy godmother-like figure and agree to do a number of tasks for her in exchange for a magical reward. The good sister does the tasks diligently with all of her heart and is rewarded with riches and a prince, while the wicked sister does as little work as possible and is punished for her laziness. In "Frau Holle," the fairy godmother lives in a portal at the bottom of the well. In the Brothers Grimm story, the kind-hearted maiden drops the reel from her spinning wheel down the well and enters the magical world to retrieve it. Once Upon a Time foreshadows Maria's romance with the prince by having him present her with a special necklace that he plans to use to identify her as his bride, essentially her glass slipper. Mary Lou throws the necklace down the well, which forces both stepsisters to enter the magical world of Frau Holle to retrieve it in the hopes of winning the prince.

Rolf Kauka's Once Upon a Time is a charming though somewhat dated movie from the early '70s. It is a faithful retelling of a classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale with a charming protagonist. I appreciate that the movie was able to get away with a few things that Disney would not have, such as Maria's drunken father who forgot about her and some questionable marriage arrangements. The music and animation are nostalgic for a simpler time. Unlike today's Hollywood blockbusters, the movie has plenty of heart. I recommend giving it a quick watch if you are a lover of animation, fairy tales, or old movies.


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