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Review: Girl Without Hands Is a Beautifully Animated Fairy Tale That Doesn’t Shy Away From Its Dark Grimm Inspiration

5 out of 5 stars

As we continue to see animation progress and become more and more realistic, the French animated film The Girl Without Hands or La Jeune Fille sans mains is a reminder that the medium can be just as compelling with simple and evocative strokes. Director Sébastien Laudenbach animated the adaptation of an old Brothers Grimm tale all by himself, and the result is a frightening and dreamlike fairy tale unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The story strays from the children-friendly fairy tales we’ve become accustomed to, in order to tell an adult story. It begins, like many of these tales do, in the woods with a miller down on his luck encountering the Devil. In hard times, the Devil appears and promises the miller gold in exchange for everything behind his mill: a simple apple tree. The miller agrees, not knowing that his daughter sits in the tree, and he has sold her as well.

You can get a general look at the style in the trailer above, which lends itself perfectly to this story that feels something you read in an old book or like it’s being read to you as a child. In these stories, you don’t question what a waterfall of gold looks like, or how a river speaks to someone. You just accept this, and the loose style Laudenbach also utilized improv to achieve almost mimics your mind sketching out these images.

The Devil, who appears as a pig, an older man, a woman, and a boy, is genuinely terrifying and the fluidity of the art captures the ways that transformation are so essential to this fairy tale. The shape of the girl shifts as well, with parts of her body changing color, and I can’t imagine these elements working with a different style.

This is, however, a morality tale that adheres to Grimm standards, meaning corruption is fatal and our protagonist’s greatest power is to persevere and endure with virtue. The synopsis writes, “Protected by her purity, she escapes from the Devil who, in revenge, deprives her of her hands. So begins her long journey towards the light… but in spite of her resilience and the new protection of a handsome prince’s estate, the Devil devises a plan of his own.”

The story of a woman who survives because of her incredible goodness as we watch her endure hardship after hardship is one very typical of morality tales. If she is ever tainted or commits a sin, there’s a sense that there is no return. (This standard is, I believe, held to every character so it’s more reminiscent of the fairy tale than gendered.) Still, Laudenbach resists a simple look at purity by making the girl a compelling and independent character who struggles for independence and is able to prosper out of her own will to live.

While the film is only 80 minutes, it felt way longer in an amazingly epic way. The film opens in NYC at the end of this week, and will expand to other theaters after. I definitely recommend it as an animated feat, and you can check out showtimes here.

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