The Grimm Variations Offers a Provocative Spin on Well-Worn Folklore

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The Grimm Variations Offers a Provocative Spin on Well-Worn Folklore

It’s hard to think of many storytellers who’ve had their work riffed on more than Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose collection of folk stories, now known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, has been adapted countless times. From Disney’s toned-down takes on the material to versions that somehow manage to be even more violent than the originals, it sometimes feels like we’ve received just about every possible configuration of this centuries-old folklore.

The latest entry in that long lineage is The Grimm Variations, a six-episode anime anthology series that reinterprets popular Grimm stories, such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel, into thirty-to-forty-five-minute one-offs. An exciting list of creatives are involved with the project, including animation from WIT Studio (Ranking of Kings, Attack on Titan), character designs from CLAMP (Cardcaptor Sakura, xxxHOLiC, Magic Knight Rayearth), and screenwriting from Michiko Yokote (Shirobako, The Disastrous Life of Saiki K., Princess Tutu, xxxHOLiC, and about 1 billion other projects), and thankfully, this collaboration bears fruit. While there are some ups and downs, these shorts find novel twists on familiar setups, recontextualizing characters and themes within new settings and genres to arrive at diverging tones.

The most straightforward pitch for the show comes in its trailer when Charlotte, the younger sister of the Grimm brothers, somewhat sinisterly inquires, “What if a fairy tale wasn’t a fairy tale? What if Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood weren’t nice? I’d love to hear a story like that.” However, while “Grimms’ Fairy Tales but grimmer” may work as the quick elevator pitch, what’s here is often (but not always) more interesting and nuanced than what that premise may imply.

For instance, the most extreme example is the second episode, “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the wolf is portrayed as a sadistic serial killer committing brutal acts of violence against women. At first, it lands like many edgy retellings of children’s stories, sensationalized and full of gore to conjure shallow shock value. However, as we get further into this yarn, we’re introduced to a far-flung post-ecological disaster backdrop where those left use AR technology to escape their dismal circumstances. Here, the killer gains specificity, a rich sociopath disillusioned with the unreality of his surroundings, who finds himself well out of his depth when he leaves his protective bubble and runs into a Red Riding Hood who proves more than easy prey.

Similarly, the first episode is also a sordid departure from its source material, taking Cinderella into psychological horror territory as the heroine’s position in the narrative warps into something else, her original role willingly adopted for nefarious ends. Yōko Kanemori’s sharp direction bathes these outrageous turns in harsh red hues and mocking instrumentation, which come together to grant a fittingly sardonic tone to the proceedings, macabre but aware of its outrageousness. Similar to the second tale, little nuances and departures help make things work; the stepsisters initially come off as familiarly cruel but are eventually cast in a different light, making them far more interesting than you’re lured into expecting.

However, things shift gears somewhat after these first two scandalizing tales, taking us to the slow-burn mystery of “Hansel and Gretel,” which takes place in a creepy Dickensian orphanage where something seems very wrong, and then into “The Elves and the Shoemaker” as an aging author struggles with irrelevance. The latter episode is likely my favorite in the entire bunch, and the contrast between its contemporary setting and slight fantastical flourishes helps elevate this searing interrogation of what it means to be a writer.

While I think the initial episodes largely work, I’m glad the entire collection isn’t quite as dismal, and futuristic western “The Town Musicians of Bremen” acts as a satisfying palate cleanser. Here, we follow a posse of outcasts, a trio of women who become notorious bounty hunters as they look for a place to call their own. The banter between our crew is delightful, and while the action animation doesn’t quite live up to Wit Studio’s high standard, this one makes for a fun gunslinging romp that does right by its colorful cast.

Each episode is bookended by scenes where the Grimm brothers (reenvisioned as hot anime boys) tell tales to their younger sister, the inquisitive Charlotte, in sequences presented via a gorgeous picture book aesthetic where brush strokes and the bleeding colors of watercolor fill the frame. These parts are so pretty that I can’t help but wish that the entire show was delivered in this style, despite the contrast between these flowery intros and the bleak subject matter being part of the point. And much like the rest of these stories, even in these more idyllic scenes, there’s an undeniable sense of wrongness underneath it all, emphasizing the contrast between what are supposed to be children’s tales and what we witness instead. In these scenes and elsewhere, there is a sharpness to Michiko Yokote’s writing as she cleverly subverts long-standing plot structures and crafts a cast of flawed figures who don’t always fit into straightforward roles.

That said, like many anthology collections, some of these episodes could have used more room to breathe. Even among the stronger entries, such as “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (which has a lot to say about breaking free of traditionalism and stifling gender norms), it almost always feels like these episodes could have used a little bit of additional time to develop these characters and concepts into something truly transcendent. The most flagrant example of this is likely the ending of “Hansel and Gretel,” which feels quite half-baked. Additionally, some sections, like the Little Red Riding Hood bit, can be so garishly gory or off-putting in other ways that it can be difficult to become fully emotionally invested in how they play out.

But despite these shortcomings, The Grimm Variations delivers compelling retellings of these centuries-old narratives, offering much more than just “ultra-dark” or edgy takes on children’s stories. Instead, it uses these dire setups to delve into fascinating ideas, tones, and original worlds, some of which happen to include Cinderella being evil. It’s tough to bring new life to fairy tales that have been done to death, but this series dusts the cobwebs off a two-century-old tome to do something fresh.

The Grimm Variations is now streaming on Netflix. 

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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