This third instruction is key, of course. But hotness isn't always enough. Say you're like Manyara (Andrea Agosto), a ravishing young woman who dashes off into the jungle one night to ensure that she arrives at the capital city — and the attention of the marriage-minded young king — before her sister does. Lovely as she is, Manyara fails to heed Rule 1. And she thoroughly botches Rule 2, which seems the easiest to get right: A fortune-teller describes a "laughing tree" and then tells her not to laugh back at it. How hard can it be to remember this when she stumbles across an enchanted grove lorded over by a tree that's guffawing like the laugh track on Two and a Half Men?
For her failures, Manyara is punished by two further encounters. She gets freaked out by a man without a head. Then, just when she should be meeting the king, she's chased off by a five-headed snake beast.
Manyara's sister, Nyasha, played with sunny soul by Teisha M. Bankston, is kind and lovely, and it's no surprise that, after an hour of this, she marries the king. We're told that Manyara and her sister are equally beautiful. But Manyara is done up like Nefertiti on prom night and, in terms of radiance, seems an evolutionary leap beyond the rest of humanity. Bankston's Nyasha, meanwhile, putts around in burlap.
Still, every character who meets the sisters judges them to be equal beauties. Though sweet, this saps the story of its power. It's a strangely egalitarian folk tale lacking much of what makes ugly-duckling tales resonate. We get neither danger nor bluntness, and at no point are the kids in attendance encouraged to think critically about the importance that societies place upon beauty.
Still, there is much to savor: the sets, costumes and animal puppets, all designed by director Brad Shaw, are delightful, as is the Ghanan call-and-response song in the beginning. Best of all is Vi Tran, a young actor charged with playing everyone the girls encounter on their journeys. He sketches quick, memorable characters, one after another.