Happily Ever After: Film Industry View's on Children

Shrek (2001)

Fairy tales have a long history of being predominantly educational and they started way back even before the Shakespearean era when they were often addressed as folklore. Folklore first came into being as oral literature; over time, the eccentricity of folklore has been infused in many different literary aspects, whereby engendering a fresh new perspective in film, namely fairy tales. Although the enjoyment of fairy tales is not labeled within one specific age group, the film industry often commoditized the elements to further indulge the children, as they are more often than not the primary audience. Because of that, the fairy tale genre has adopted a certain story-telling approach that better attracts children's attention to boost their viewership.

Their narrative structure lies heavily on the intriguing aspects of children's psyche in a specific time period. As far visually, the standard fairy tale story formula usually entails a distinct plotline that often glorifies positivism and hope, and it is best known as “happily ever after”.

What is “Happily Ever After”?

Snow white (1937)

Culturally coined as a canon to any children's fairy tale genre, “happily ever after” generally consists of a magical transformation or miraculous event leading to a satisfying and happy ending (Zipes, 1997). Although its development as a literary technique began in the renaissance era, its popularity started to rise during one of the darkest times of our history, the depression age in America and the rise of fascism. The world was dystopian portraying the many horrors of war in narratives and imagery. However, the “happily ever after” plotline, which usually has a utopian vision embedded, has gained a new audience for film industries to explore, thus contributing to a huge phenomenon and market change in the narrative construction.

The dichotomous contrast of optimism versus pessimism in the narrative of “happily ever after” and the World War II complements the initial premise of the structure efficacy. The memory of war caused widespread mystery across the globe, and the society was left out of the emptiness and void of war. The notion of “happily ever after” was surely seen as a strange concept but it was highly favored by the filmgoers at that time.

For example, Disney’s classic-hit animated movies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, represent zero actuality of the current era; however, they both bet for the same “happily ever after” plotline. The positivism of “happily ever after” speaks of happiness and utopia in the face of massive devastation (Zipes, 1997, p. 2).

In short, aiming for fame and success (Zipes, 1997, p. 2), the film industry turned their primary audience's living conditions into symbols and illustrated them into the story for the sake of significance. Just like any other commoditized cultural phenomenon, the “happily ever after” story structure reflects cultural relevancy from the characters, and conflict, to world-building.

The Development of “Happily Ever After” Narrative

Mulan (2002)

Going way back to Word War II, under the notion of “The Children of Survivors”, children born during wartime endured psychological trauma which at times drove them to severe psychological disorders such as neuroticism, pessimism, and PTSD-related characteristics of intrusion and denial of experiences (Mook et al., 1997). Filmmakers embodied the gap those children experienced as a cinematic adaptation, although the depiction is not always 100 percent accurate. Literature, as a product of social construct, works as a representation of reality illustrating both its sympathetic and antagonistic aspects.

These aspects of reality are translated into a formulated story where the plot and characters correspond to the realities of society as well as the story’s narration. In this context, the rise of “happily ever after” started in the midst of war, and, as a result of their longing for peace, filmmakers have augmented their strong desire into the “happily ever after” plotline. In another word, the reality is dystopian, so, the formulated story that could stimulate “happily ever after” is by enhancing the utopian message within society.

In excess of the utopian role in the formula, there is another specific theme that a lot of filmmakers turn to when it comes to portraying a story's setting: Before peace, there’s chaos. Oftentimes, a film’s plot derives from a battle of power and then witness how it devastates the characters, as seen in Disney’s Mulan and Dreamwork’s Shrek. By the end of such stories, the main characters are usually seen to have successfully resolved the conflicts and achieved their goals, and then “live happily ever after”.

For a long time, this formulaic plotline has been, and still is, very popular among filmmakers, as there is very often an iteration of it represented and driven by different gimmicks and storylines. During its early development, it was only natural for these kids to respond positively to something that greatly opposed their everyday views, and that was why fairy tales, offering stress relief and hope, were so popular among families.

Just like any other art form, the film is subject to commodification, with its purpose being to give pleasure and subsequently to bring the creator profits. The “Happily Ever After” plotline has established itself as a staple in the fairy tale genre due to its preposterous nature together with its upbringing feeling.

The Modern-Day “Happily Ever After”

After one adaptation and another, the way filmmakers approach this formulaic plotline has evolved. Back then, the story framework of “happily ever after” could be as simple as marrying the Prince Charming (or the other way around), as seen in many early Disney princess films, or solving family matters, like Disney’s Pinocchio or Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky.

As society progresses from one time to another, fairy tales do also transform historically. The modern-day ones do not convey simple happiness again as before; rather, they comply with the complexity of social changes.

After many years of success, the traditional “happily ever after” plotline has finally been considered cliché as it becomes one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nowadays, there seems to be more discourse included in the plot development such as sexuality, race, gender, class, and activities (Zipes, 1997, p. 90). As a business, this change is a natural response as they tried to shift and adjust to certain social needs in hopes of acceptance, thus more viewerships for them.

The newest adaptations of HBO’s Cinderella or the latest Disney’s Cars 3 have shown a similar pattern in defining the “happily ever after” plotline. Filmmakers reconstructed the existing social norms with more fitting and modern notions that would represent wider audiences. Rather than implying a message meant for a broader spectrum of audiences, the modern-day “happily ever after” plotline has narrowed its focus to the most vulnerable group of people.

The reception and interpretation of current filmmakers’ creative intentions showed that they're governed by the film company's means of production to gain profit as much as they can. This ideology is embedded into the very plot and narratives of fairy tale films (Zipes, 1997, p. 90).

Aligning to the ever-changing changes in society and the film industry’s goal of appealing to children, the “happily ever after” plotline has been adjusted and contributed to children’s cultural development through artistic merits. It is because they want to control children’s aesthetic interests and tastes (Zipes, 1997, p. 91). Disney is one of the most successful companies that have continuously reshaped and branded “Happily ever after”. After decades of its domination and success, nowadays, children could easily tell that “Disney” connotes happiness.


Zipes, J. (1997). Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry (1st ed.). Routledge, 1-90.

Mook, J., Schreuder, B. J., van der Ploeg, H. M., Bramsen, I., van Tiel-Kadiks, G. W., & Feenstra, W. (1997). Psychological Complaints and Characteristics in Postwar Children of Dutch World War II Victims: Those Seeking Treatment as Compared with Their Siblings. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 66(5), 268–275. https://doi.org/10.1159/000289146

Image References:

(2001), Shrek, Dreamworks

Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/18/movies/shrek-20th-anniversary.html

(1937), Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Disney

Retrieved from: https://www.lostinthemovies.com/2010/11/snow-white-and-sleeping-beauty.html

(2002), Mulan, Disney

Retrieved from: https://princess.disney.com/mulan

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Dwiky Juniarta

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