Fairy tales represent a culture's way of explaining a brutal world to its children. This is what happens when you step off the path, they warn or leave your family, or come of sexual age. At the same time, they reassure listeners that endings can be happy, if entertainingly bizarro. (Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood stepping whole and undigested out of the wolf's belly? Whatever.)
A movie like Ever After makes you wonder whether it's children or grown-ups who need reassurance most. The Drew Barrymore vehicle is a gently revisionist version of the tale of Cinderella, but it's not really aimed at kids even though an earthy Anglo-Saxonism was eliminated for the PG-rated video (the DVD, still PG-13, retains it). Nor is this the first time the movies have repackaged fairy tales for adult consumption. What makes Ever After notable, though, is its yearning lack of cynicism. Such is the knee-jerk hipness of modern filmmakers that something must be laid on top of the story horror or humor, usually just to let you know they know.
You have to go back to Jean Cocteau's swooning, hyperpoetic Beauty and the Beast to find a grown-up fairy tale with the courage to believe. Released in 1946, in a France prostrate from WWII, the film begins with a prologue begging a little ''childlike simplicity'' of its audiences, and the film that follows has the febrile power of a dream, with Beauty (Josette Day) and the Beast (Jean Marais) circling around each other in a spooky land of make-believe that makes the Disney version look like a, um, cartoon.
If Beauty laid out the classic approach, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves is typical of the modern method: a florid, crazily enjoyable adaptation of Angela Carter's story that loads all sorts of post-'60s baggage onto Little Red Riding Hood. Gonzo Freudianism, horror-movie viscera, werewolf legends, medieval grunge, Angela Lansbury nattering darkly as Granny: It's all crammed into a concentric narrative that serves as a reminder both that you should ''never trust a man whose eyebrows meet'' and that ''if there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women.''
With 1987's The Princess Bride, you can sense a move toward a greater, more willful naiveté: While not based on any one fairy tale, William Goldman's script (based on his far more wonderful novel) traffics in the usual castles, giants, and lovelorn princesses (here, a pre-Penn Robin Wright). Still, director Rob Reiner's penchant for hip little riffs Billy Crystal as a yiddish wizard, etc. dilutes primal power in favor of genial fun.
By contrast, the 1997 version of Snow White subtitled A Tale of Terror goes straight for the primal, and shoots itself in the foot. Sigourney Weaver bravely goes the psychological distance as a seriously wicked stepmother, but the film's a lugubrious, overcooked mess that forgets fairy tales are meant to entertain as well as instruct. Matthew Bright's 1996 Freeway takes the opposite tack: Scabrously entertaining without any thoughts to a larger vision, it's Little Red Riding Hood in Tarantino Land, with hilariously juicy performances by Reese Witherspoon as a street-hardened heroine and Kiefer Sutherland as skeevy Bob Wolverton, the ''I-5 Killer.''
After all this neurotic thrashing about, the squareness of Ever After comes as a bit of a shock. And, then, a pleasure. The greatest concession that director Andy Tennant makes to winning over the grown-up audience is to set his Cinderella story in a semi-realistic historical context: 16th-century France, with Leonardo da Vinci, of all people, serving as fairy godmother. Actually, that's a tip-off to Ever After's angle. Here, Danielle (Barrymore) is a force for enlightenment, a fan of Thomas More's Utopia who instructs her Prince Charming, Henry (Dougray Scott), in the delights of democracy, universal education, and equality.
If that sounds like an agenda cooked up by a Massachusetts school board, it doesn't play that way. It's more an empowerment story for teenage girls, and while earnest to a fault and blind to darker currents, the movie benefits from the sweet belief the cast has in its characters and their dilemmas. Even Anjelic Huston grounds her stepmother in a bitchy insecurity that rings true to both fairy-tale logic and modern psychology. Ever After doesn't begin to approach the magic of Cocteau's Beauty, but, like that film and unlike many since, it allows the audience innocence knowing that when we read fairy tales to our children, we're really reading them to ourselves.
Ever After: B
Beauty and the Beast: A+
In the Company of Wolves: B-
The Princess Bride: B
Snow White: D+