Parents looking for a colorful spin on their favorite childhood stories need search no further than HBO's multicultural animated series "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child," available in full on DVD or on demand from HBO Family. Designed for the 12-and-under-crowd, the award-winning series offers modern reinterpretations of familiar classics, placing minority characters in the lead roles, and shifting the settings to reflect a diversity of world cultures. Little Red Riding Hood gets transported to ancient China, The Emperor's New Clothes is reimagined in feudal Japan, Rapunzel gets a Cajun makeover, and Snow White becomes a Native American princess named White Snow. Narrated by Robert Guillaume and boasting such A-list voice talent such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie Perez, Chris Rock, and Samuel L. Jackson, among others, the show adds a new emphasis on tolerance, understanding and cooperation to each story's traditional moral lesson.
Deftly avoiding the twin pitfalls of racial caricature and bland political correctness, the show manages--at its best--to fuse the distinct flavor of each culture into its storytelling, without sacrificing the timeless qualities that have kept these tales alive for generations. Of course, as with any series, some episodes succeed better than others, so here I will offer a more detailed critique of three in particular to serve as a representative snapshot.
The first, entitled "The Princess and the Pauper," takes Mark Twain's tale of mistaken identity and gives it a feminist twist. Olivia is the pampered princess of Peachburg, a prosperous kingdom with a dark underbelly--the crime-infested slum known as the Peach Pits, home of the virtuous Zoe. Encouraged by her loving mother, Zoe dreams of a better life outside the ghetto, but her degenerate father keeps her down, telling her, "You're just a broke nobody like the rest of us." A chance encounter in the town square leads to a friendship between Zoe and Olivia, who realize that they are exact doubles. Switching clothes on a lark, the girls end up displaced from their respective homes, and during their adventures each learns valuable lessons about equality and human dignity. Aside from the class issues explored in this episode, there is also a remarkable range of ethnicities on display, although race relations are not addressed explicitly. Olivia and Zoe are both black (and ostensibly "American,") but Olivia has a Persian father and an African mother, and the townspeople pictured are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Arabic, all shown living harmoniously. The episode also delicately addresses the death of Olivia's father, so parents of younger viewers should be prepared to discuss the subject further after the credits roll.
The second episode, called "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," tells the story of a young wheelchair-bound girl named Imani, who lives with her grandmother, and prefers the company of her own imagination to that of other kids her age. One day, her grandmother gives her a box of toy soldiers made by her grandfather. One soldier in particular is missing a leg where her grandfather ran out of material--"That's just the way that one was made," the grandmother says. Imani dubs the toy Goldie, and gives it a place of honor among her other playthings. Once everyone is asleep, the toys come to life and interact with one another, and Goldie finds herself ostracized by the group, except for a handsome African doll atop Imani's bookcase. Determined to win his affections, Goldie begins her long climb upward, facing a series of obstacles along the way, including the scheming of a psychotic Jack-in-the-box, and the musical taunts of a mean-spirited trio of Barbie dolls, who tell her, "You don't stand a chance." Goldie perseveres, however, with the mantra, "Determination is all I need," and eventually reaches her destination to become the hero of the toyroom. Imani wakes up to find Goldie locked in a dance with the African doll, decides to stop feeling sorry for herself, and is empowered to leave the house to make new friends.
The third episode is a resetting of the tale of Robin Hood against a Mexican background. Entitled "Robinita Hood," the episode incorporates a good deal of Spanish into the story of the plucky heroine who "steals from los ricos and gives to los pobres." Together with her band of Merry Chicas, Robinita Hood terrorizes the evil sheriff and fights for the underprivileged, fostering ideas of charity as well as female empowerment. Parents may not like the use of violence as a solution to conflict that is prevalent in this episode, and although no gets hurt, plenty of money is stolen by the protagonist, albeit for a noble cause. A discussion about injustice and what can be done about it would probably be useful after viewing this one with younger children.
All in all, this series does an admirable job of presenting an alternative to the typical Eurocentric heroes of the cartoon landscape. Entertaining and educational, with clear moral lessons imparted in each episode, "Happily Ever After" is a fun and effective way to open children's eyes to the diversity of modern life, and to start them thinking early about respecting and appreciating other cultures. Unfortunately, HBO stopped producing new episodes of the series in the early 2000s, but families can still find the show in various formats. I would give the series a solid A-minus, and recommend that parents or teachers watch this with their children and encourage a dialogue about the issues explored.