Fairy stories were historically horrifying, especially those penned by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. The original fairytale has the Little Mermaid die rather than marry her lovely prince, just like Hansel and Gretel and the like were produced as cautionary tales to terrify children into good behavior.
But Disney helped to alter that. Children of later eras were raised to believe in fairy tales with happy endings. Just in the nick of time, heroes would arrive to their rescue, princesses would break out in song, and the villains would always get what they deserved.
Everyone, including adults, is pampered. These days, when you hear the phrase “fairy tale for grown ups,” you might think of a live-action adaptation of a classic or a new edition of Harry Potter with a grittier cover. When Apple TV+ describes The Changeling as a “fairy tale for adults,” they aren’t kidding.
New York City, the standard setting for crime stories, alien invasions, and romantic comedies, is the focus of this adaptation of Victor LaValle’s 2017 novel of the same name. While visitors to New York will recognize many of the city’s monuments, they will also feel a continual sense of unease as dark fantasy is added to the city in The Changeling.
Apollo Kagwa, portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield, is a guy obsessed with finding his missing wife, Emma (Clark Backo). Apollo is left to pick up the pieces after she gives birth to their first child in a subway station and then mysteriously vanishes into an underworld (see, just go with it).
Luckily, The Changeling provides some background for this situation, and we learn the origins of Emma’s problems. She met a witch when trekking across Brazil as a teenager and was granted three wishes, but she was cautioned she couldn’t take off her string bracelet. When they first start dating, Apollo, in his normal show of confidence, cuts right through it by assuring her that he will always protect her.
Is that right? As the couple continues to spiral downward into an abyss of anguish, the gods of The Changeling’s universe look on and chuckle. Apollo struggles with his own father’s abandonment as he searches for his son; he tries to sell an original copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for cash but has no luck; and, to top it all off, he gets sucked into the internet underworld, which leads him to a mysterious island ruled by wronged women.
As the above may have made evident, the concept is completely bonkers when described in its most obtuse words. The 2019 film Queen and Slim, however, directed by Melina Matsoukas, has a tone that respects its topic. Dungeons, night, mystery, and jump scares are all here, as are other staples of the horror genre, and there’s even room for a good soundtrack, highlighted by Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By. However, the complexity of the characters adds to the drama. When a character that the audience has come to rely on betrays their trust, it may be devastating.
In fact, the performances are primarily responsible for The Changeling’s continued watchability. In his portrayal of a guy who has been defeated by life to the point of giving up, rising star Stanfield pulls on the grit that earned him an Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah. And Backo, who is most well-known for her appearances in The Handmaid’s Tale and Letterkenny, is a revelation, making Emma likable and sympathetic even at her most crazy and unbalanced.
The Changeling is a fairy tale that is ludicrous, unrepentant, and occasionally beautiful, but it takes the will and drive of Apollo simply to watch it. Be careful in wishing for too much.
On September 8, Apple TV+ will debut the first three episodes of “The Changeling.”