Despite the standard images in books and film, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella do not have to be blond. And neither, for that matter, does Jack (the one who climbed the Beanstalk).
A new animated series on HBO, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, sets out this week to rethink these ingrained and subtle stereotypes.
PBS' "The Puzzle Place" recently covered similar territory--during playtime its preschool-age multiethnic puppets were troubled as they brought a favorite storybook to life and none of the playmates looked like anyone in the book.
That was the dilemma producer Donna Guillaume ("Wonderworks" "Two on the Town") encountered when she began to read classic fairy tales to her young daughter, now 6, when she was about 2. "There just weren't any books that reflected real life for her."
Guillaume couldn't have been happier when the "Happily Ever After" books-on-tape project came to her and her husband, two-time Emmy-winning actor Robert Guillaume, who was sought to narrate. (He also narrates the 90-minute premiere.) The stories create a new, ethnically diverse fairy-tale kingdom from the classics.
The Guillaumes were so excited about the project they helped turn "Happily Ever After" into a cable production. A multitude of celebrities lend their voices also.
"It's multiethnic and very exciting," says Donna Guillaume, executive producer. "When I was little I never saw a black Hansel and Gretel or a Chinese Red Riding Hood. All different races are represented throughout the 13 stories covered."
The tales "are reactive to the imaginations of children everywhere," points out co-executive producer Meryl Marshall. "I hope this will show children that with the new images of Jack, Red Riding Hood ... as well as any others they might read, can be whatever they imagine them to be. The visual medium has a tendency to lock images in, and now we are widening the choices for children."
Kids, Donna points out, will enjoy the familiarity of the stories their parents grew up hearing, with the addition of original music. Each show has different songs.
As for how choices about characters were made, she adds, "We just kind of matched stories to ethnicities, things that made sense. For example, for 'The Emperor's New Clothes,' we set it in Japan, where, traditionally, there have been emperors. 'Little Red Riding Hood' took on a more Chinese emphasis. She's bringing dim sum to her grandmother. Some settings just seemed to work in certain stories."
The series' writers, animators, composers and musicians come from multiethnic backgrounds--African American, Jamaican, Latino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Native American.
A sense of humor plays a big part in the stories, Marshall says. "We've made it a very warm expression of the classics; they're extremely colorful and friendly and just very fun."
Books based on the series will be released in May by Random House.
"Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child" premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with the trilogy "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel" on HBO. Half-hour shows will air regularly Sundays at 7:30 p.m. For ages 2 to 8.
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THE STORIES AND THEIR CELEBRITY VOICE-OVERS
Jack and the Beanstalk: Harry Belafonte, Jackee Harry and Tone Loc.
The Emperor's New Clothes: George Takei, Brian Tochi and Gedde Watanabe.
The Frog Prince: LeVar Burton, Tommy Davidson, Danny Glover, Jay Leno, Branford Marsalis and Sinbad.
Hansel and Gretel: Cheech Marin, Rosie Perez and Liz Torres.
Little Red Riding Hood: B.D. Wong and Brian Tochi.
Rapunzel: Tisha Campbell, Whoopi Goldberg and Meschach Taylor.
Rumpelstiltskin: Roscoe Lee Browne, Jasime Guy, Sherman Hemsley, Robert Townsend and Denzel Washington.
Sleeping Beauty: Lucie Arnaz, Ricardo Montalban, Paul Rodriguez and Carmen Zapata.
Cinderella: Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, Raquel Welch and Daphne Zuniga.
Beauty and the Beast: Debbie Allen, Gregory Hines, Vanessa Williams and Paul Winfield.
The Valiant Little Tailor: David Alan Grier, James Earl Jones and Dawann Lewis.
Snow White: Graham Green and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The Princess and the Pea: Margaret Cho.