Firsts: Georges Melies' Cinderella is the world's first fantasy film

Contributed by
Jan 6, 2018

Frenchman Georges Melies, the pioneering silent-era cinematic magician, presides over a number of "firsts" in the history of popular entertainment.

While most of his celebrated career is focused on his mesmerizing production of 1902's A Trip to the Moon, the world's first science fiction movie, and 1896's The Haunted Castle, considered the world's first horror film, less attention is paid to his elegant 1899 adaptation of Cinderella (Cendrillon), officially branded the first fantasy flick.

At just 5 minutes and 38 seconds, Melies manages to tell a coherent story with subtle camera trickery, ornamented sets, and a fertile imagination. It's the earliest film presentation of the timeless folk tale, whose mythic variants date back to the 7th century B.C.

By showcasing dancing chorus girls, the element of metamorphosis, and the inevitability of time thrust into the brief narrative, the French filmmaker's production is actually far more symbolic and sophisticated than it may appear at first glance.

Handed down orally over many centuries, the first literary European version of the well-worn Cinderella story was published in Italy in 1634 by Giambattista Basile in his Pentamerone. Far and away the most familiar to modern audiences, the Charles Perrault iteration published in 1697 contains many of the iconic components.

In the 19th century, the legendary Brothers Grimm used the material in their 1812 collection of folk tales titled Grimms' Fairy Tales. Disney delivered a technicolor animated feature of the abused peasant girl who becomes a princess in 1950, and a more modern-day remake of the cartoon classic, directed by Henry V's Kenneth Branagh, was released in 2015 starring Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, and Game of Thrones' Richard Madden.

Melies' adaptation is an astounding achievement for the time and must have entranced worldwide audiences when it was first screened nearly 120 years ago. Have a look ...

All the memorable thematic cues are present in this amazing short film, such as the oppressed servant girl, the sympathetic fairy godmother, the wicked stepsisters, a pumpkin turning into a magical coach, the gala ball, the glass slipper, and the handsome prince who tries to discover the true owner of the lost shoe.

Melies has distilled the famous fairy tale down to its bare essence and delivers a wonderfully transportive experience in five fantastic minutes. With its lavish sets, spectacular costumes, ingenious in-camera special effects, and epic scope, Cinderella was the first must-see hit in the film world, shown nonstop at French fairgrounds, exhibitions, and crowded American music halls and vaudeville theaters.

Quaint and primitive by today's standards, it's a rare gem that has been carefully preserved that solidified Melies' growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the emerging movie industry.