Tři oříšky pro Popelku [Three Wishes for Cinderella] (1973)

I kind of wish I could claim I just randomly stumbled across this gem, but the truth is I found this - along with a handful of other movies - on this list of great European Christmas films last year. Three Wishes for Cinderella (we'll stick with the English title, though apparently, "Three Chestnuts for Cinderella" would have been a more accurate translation) is an adaptation of the classic fairytale. Or, more precisely, an adaptation of a specific version of said fairytale written by Božena Němcová a century earlier (thanks, Wikipedia!). The movie is set during the holidays and is apparently a tradition in some areas of Europe the way Rudolph or Frosty is here.

I'll circle back to the holidays, but first I want to dig into why this is - in my opinion, of course - the best live-action version of Cinderella I've ever seen. Maybe the best version, period (the Disney classic is probably my least favorite of their films from that era). And if you're tempted to object that I'm forgetting the delightful 1998 film, Ever After, rest assured I'm a fan (caught it in theaters, if memory serves). It's just... well... I now think most of the best stuff from that movie was borrowed from this one.

I can't be certain, mind you, but Barrymore's feminist spin on the character feels a lot like the version appearing in Three Wishes, which also features similar structural elements in the love story. There's no Leonardo da Vinci, but there is a magic owl, so I'll call that a wash. Plus, this doesn't feature racist caricatures of Romani, and there's no extraneous attempted rape scene (though to be fair there is an ambiguous line that could be read as a sexual threat).

I'm not going to do a full plot breakdown, because I'm assuming everyone knows the basic outline to Cinderella. I will, however, cover the main changes this makes, starting with a minor one: Cinderella has one step-sister in this version, rather than the two presented in most versions I've encountered. A far larger change is in Cinderella's personality - rather than being presented as a meek, soft-spoken child who confronts her fate with a sad humility, this kid is an angry, defiant trickster who regularly confronts her stepmother and shows absolutely no deference to the prince. She reluctantly does the chores her stepmother commands (except when her bird friends swoop in and bail her out, in case you thought they left that bit out), but she doesn't pretend to like it.

Likewise, her first interaction with the prince comes when she pelts him with a snowball so he misses a dear with a crossbow. Along with a couple of his friends, he gives chase, but she outsmarts and outmaneuvers them, a fact they acknowledge.

Later, she gets three magic chestnuts (or perhaps three regular chestnuts the aforementioned owl uses as cover for some magic - it's a little ambiguous what's actually behind the invocation), and she uses the first "wish" to summon hunting clothes so she can dress as a boy and follow the prince. She interrupts a hunt to shoot down a bird of prey the prince and his friends missed, winning a valuable ring in the process. She pulls off a couple more trick shots, as well, earning their respect, then runs off when they're not looking.

The ball plays out mostly as usual, with Cinderella using her second wish to summon a gown. She keeps her face covered with a veil, which makes the last act a bit more believable. After leaving him with a riddle alluding to her three personas - the servant maid, the hunting boy, and the dancer - she runs off, refusing to accept his proposal if he can't solve it. He gives chase, following her to her stepmother's village, so his proclamation around the slipper is targeted to the women there (less epic than summoning all the women in the kingdom, perhaps but better suited to a visual medium).

The stepmother and stepsister try to pull the usual shenanigans, here by tying Cinderella up, stealing her gown, and trying to trick the prince into proposing before looking at the girl under the veil. But in the process of leading him away, their sleigh overturns, dumping the women into a shallow pond and revealing the ruse. The prince takes off, once again in search of Cinderella, and is led back to the village by the owl, who separately gets Cinderella to use her final wish to summon a wedding dress. She meets the prince who finally figures out her riddle and realizes the three people he encountered are the same woman (and therefore acknowledges she's a complex person), and the whole thing ends happily ever after without telling us whether Cinderella's wicked step-relations froze to death.

I'm particularly impressed with the details around Cinderella herself. Considering how many versions give her little-to-no agency, this finds ways of turning her into a proactive, adventurous spirit. And, to be clear, absolutely nothing in the narrative implies these are faults - quite the contrary. The movie retains the notion she's someone who should be emulated as the ideal woman, but in this context, the "ideal woman" is a confirmed badass with a crossbow. Her affinity with wild animals comes off less as some sort of reward for humility and more as a reflection of her own wild nature. Her servant outfit makes her look like some sort of elf or nature spirit, and I'm pretty sure that was intentional.

Also, while it was a far smaller part, it's worth noting the queen is also shown as the more perceptive and capable of the prince's parents. Further, it does this without reducing the king to a bumbling fool - he's still quite clever, just not as clever as his wife.

I'm unequipped to speak as to how the movie's gender politics compare to Czech films of the era (or any era, for that matter), but they certainly feel progressive compared to the majority of American movies I've seen from the 70s. Interestingly, these were the only politics I noticed. Despite a premise centered on nobility, there weren't any clear themes surrounding economics or the like, though I should note one area in which the absence of an element may have been significant. People never seemed to be afraid of the royal family. They seemed to be trying to win their favor, but - despite a few opportunities - there was no indication incurring their wrath could be dangerous. For example, when the prince shows up at Cinderella's village at the end, the commoners initially don't recognize him and mock him until they figure out who he is. Once they know, they seem apologetic and take his requests seriously, but no one begs forgiveness or seems all that concerned he might be upset over their earlier reactions. The movie never really spells out a time or place for its setting, nor does it explicitly explain what royalty means here, but the implication seems to be it's mostly a symbolic title, and further that this particular family holds it honorably. 

If anyone has additional context related to the filmmakers, Czech cinema, or even the source material (I suspect it's not incidental this notably feminist take is based on a version of the fairytale written by a woman), please drop a comment below. I'd love to know more about this.

I also want to make sure I call attention to the look and feel of the movie. Three Wishes for Cinderella is a beautiful film, with gorgeous, evocative sets and picturesque winter landscapes. Everything aims for a storybook esthetic, prioritizing tone over realism but not to the extent that it feels overly childish. Make no mistake, the movie is still a children's movie, but the world is designed to feel lived in and - despite the fantasy elements - grounded and believable. It's an impressive line to walk, but Three Wishes pulls it off with grace.

The tone is helped by an effective score, which the movie incorporates into montages that pull you into the world. Some of the songs in the latter half are a bit dated - in general, the songs with lyrics didn't work for me, while the mood music did - but on the whole, I was almost as happy with how everything sounded as I was with how it looked.

And speaking of appearances, let's talk a little about Christmas - that's the self-imposed mandate of this blog, after all. I don't believe the holidays were ever actually addressed in dialogue, but rather serve as a backdrop. I should note this wasn't originally going to be the case: the movie was apparently written with the assumption it would be set in the summer, but the director wanted it moved to winter. It's not hard to see why: the visual palette is evocative and magical.

That does, of course, strongly imply the holidays aren't connected to the theme or plot (though you could make a case the magic chestnuts being given as a gift were incorporated into holiday customs), but it's notable for another reason. The practice of moving movies to the holidays for tonal reasons would become commonplace in American films soon after this, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a single case prior to Three Wishes for Cinderella. Moreover, the most common use in American films (usually action movies) centers on contrasting the holiday decorations with violence - here, we see it used to enhance a whimsical tone.

There's a lot more I could (and probably should) go into. The performances are great, with Libuše Šafránková's Cinderella being particularly delightful. I barely touched on the cinematography, but there are scenes deserving of exploration in depth. This is well-directed, well-designed, well-shot, and well-acted: I don't have a lot of complaints here.

In case it needs saying, this one's worth tracking down, so long as you enjoy fairytales. The one caveat is the existence of subtitles is of course going to be an impediment for kids, who'd otherwise love it. But I can't bring myself to suggest turning to a dub, at least on first viewing. This really deserves to be seen in all its artistry, with the original performances intact.