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No. 6: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

“She is alive, or was an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her I shall be very put out.” ~~Prince Humperdinck

Giants and monsters and evil wayward kings, sword fights, gallant gentlmen on noble steeds, lovely damsels awaiting rescue, perfectly magical kisses and the prospect of love everlasting — it’s enough to put a person’s gag reflex to the ultimate test. But let not your esophagus revolt and your stomach turn, for “The Princess Bride” is not that sort of fairy tale. Not in the least. Oh, sure, Rob Reiner’s absurdly clever film about the courtship of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) and lowly stablehand Westley (Cary Elwes) contains all these expected elements. But every single one of them gets a little tweak, a shot of sly wit that blasts off the dust and cobwebs of yore and makes “The Princess Bride” the kind of feisty creation that feels fresher and funnier with every viewing. 

So how, exactly, does this “Extreme Makeover: Fairy Tale Edition” play out? How can it enrapture and intrigue us in ways that don’t feel like a quirky rehash of “Cinderella”? For starters, there are the characters, who fill the standard roles but refuse to play to type. Princess Buttercup, though lovelorn, isn’t quite the garden-variety lady-in-distress. She’s got a mouth on her, a temper and a brain too — and she’s not shy about using them all. Westley’s neither a boorish Healthcliff nor a mindless Prince Charming. He’s more apt to shred his foes with “you warhog-faced buffoon” than cry about lost love. There are sidekicks, but they do not serve merely as boring spacefillers; Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) have enough issues to get Freud’s head spinning. And the villains, including Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Tyrone (Christopher Guest), spend as much time being droll — who but a perfect scoundrel could pull off “please consider me as an alternative to suicide”? — as they do plotting evil deeds. Everyone who shows up in “The Princess Bride” has a distinctive personality that’s just a shade left of center, just enough to subvert our expectations.

Based on William Goldman’s equally fantastic book, the story itself, though, supplies intrigue aplenty. “The Princess Bride” employs that story-within-a-story method, with a wiseacre grandfather (Peter Falk) reading to his sick young grandson (Fred Savage), who’s really worried there will be too much smooching and not enough sword fights. There’s plenty of both in the tale Grandpa reads, an entertaining yarn about Westley and Buttercup, lovers separated by his quest to seek fortune on the seas. Prince Humperdinck takes the heartbroken Buttercup as his bride-to-be (he has his own motives, and all of them are unsavory), but there are hiccups in the sneaky prince’s plot, not least of which is Buttercup’s kidnapping by Inigo, Fezzik and their shrill employer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the appearance of the mysterious Man in Black/Dread Pirate Roberts. Throw in an impending mawwage*, a life-sucking torture machine and a miracle man (Billy Crystal) with the power to rise the Nearly Dead, and you’ve got yourself a story so interwoven in its complexity that it makes “Syriana” seem like “Son-in-Law.”

By now we’ve covered what catapults “The Princess Bride” leaps and bounds above other fairy tales. Wa-hoo. But why does this movie deserve a place on our shelves and in our hearts? There’s no easy answer to that question. The script is full of piquant wit and infinitely quotable quips like “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder” and “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” Maybe it’s because the likes of Patinkin’s damaged but resilient Inigo Montoya, set on avenging his father’s death, and Fezzik, a sad pariah plucked for a dreadful life of unemployment in Greenland, feel sweetly and surprisingly real to us. Or perhaps we return to “The Princess Bride” again and again because there’s some deep, primal, frightfully uncynical part of us that wants to believe in the happy ending, the world in balance, the magic.

And if there are a few Rodents of Unusual Size thrown in? Well, that just sweetens the deal.

*It’s what brings us togevuh today.