Long before Oscar Wilde became a literary celebrity for his most famous work—The Picture of Dorian Gray and plays like Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest—he was a bit of a reality star. Wilde traveled the UK and the United States (as portrayed by Stephen Fry here) as a representative of the popular philosophy of “aestheticism,” an urbane nineteenth-century movement against Victorian prudery and the dry moral calculus of utilitarianism and its associations with industrial culture. Aesthetes such as Wilde sought to elevate good taste and the pursuit of beauty alone as a guiding principle of art and life. Wilde expressed the ideas in several well-known epigrams, such as the wryly redundant, “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.”
Wilde was ridiculed for the many of the same reasons he was feted—his flamboyant public persona and devotion to aestheticism, which satirists caricatured as a kind of decadent navel-gazing. But careful readers of Wilde’s diverse canon of poetry, prose, and drama will know of his critical looks at solipsism and superficiality. Some of his best works as a moralist are his children’s stories, such as the 1888 book of fairy stories The Happy Prince and Other Tales. In the title story, a prince is transformed into a glittering statue on a pedestal high above a city, where residents look up to him as an example of human perfection. But the prince, we learn, spends his time weeping in compassion for the poverty and suffering he sees below him. Made in 1974 by Canadian company Potterton Productions, and featuring the voices of British actors Christopher Plummer and Glynis Johns, the animated short film above is a faithful rendering of Wilde’s story. You can find it added to our collection of Free Movies Online, under Animation.
In 1971, Potterton produced an earlier animated short film based on another story from the Happy Prince collection. A Christian allegory, The Selfish Giant (above) tells the tale of a cranky giant who walls off his garden to keep children out. The plight of one little boy changes the giant’s disposition. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best animated short in 1972. Potterton also produced a short film of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and studio head Gerald Potterton would go on in 1981 to direct the cult stoner film Heavy Metal. An interesting irony of the Wilde animations above: both films, and a third called The Remarkable Rocket, were co-produced with Reader’s Digest, the magazine that represents the hard-headed practicality and sentimental, sexually repressive Victorian values (in American dress) that Wilde disdained.
If you can’t get enough of Wilde’s moving fairy tales, you won’t want to miss Stephen Fry reading “The Happy Prince” below.