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by Kathi Maio

BEAUTY FADES, BUT FAIRY TALES NEVER DIE


FAIRY TALES, like folk songs, have always exemplified the art of the mashup. Fables featuring similar storylines have been told and retold, again and again in human cultures over the ages and from country to country. Names, secondary characters, and plot details may diverge, but a central theme usually unites the variant versions. It's only when a master folklorist (or two, in the case of the Brothers Grimm) pastes together favorite elements into a single, published folktale that the story coalesces into an (almost) universally recognized form.

But even scholarly collation doesn't stop the morphing of such stories. Putting one's own spin on a familiar legend is a tempting prospect for all manner of storytellers, from revered poets to reviled porn producers.

Few stories have been analyzed and adapted as many times and in as many ways as that of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." The fairy tale has been deconstructed by Freudians and feminists. It has even been "Queercripped" in an academic journal. And retellings that range from Anne Sexton poems to Donald Barthelme novels indicate the fable's continuing literary appeal.

The tale of (step)mother-daughter conflict and the waxing and waning of female beauty has also, of course, inspired filmmakers. There were ample reasons for Walt Disney to base his first animated feature on the familiar story. And one of those reasons was likely that he remembered seeing a silent live-action version of Snow White when he was a boy.

Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is undeniably a watershed in animation and a truly classic film. How he adapted the story is a topic that has been critiqued and debated with almost as much passion as the original folktale. Disney and his eight writers subtracted the King altogether, developed the characters and personalities of the elfin miners, made woodland creatures the enchanted friends and helpers of the persecuted runaway princess, and gave the haughty queen a mirror with a male persona. They also opted to make the ruthless queen's death a matter of nature (specifically, a lightning strike) and her own misadventure, rather than take the more vengeful path of the Grimm brothers. In their version, burning shoes are placed upon the queen's feet at Snow White's wedding, forcing the old queen to dance herself to death—implying that the new most beautiful young queen had a taste for violence, too.

Disney also heightened other aspects of the story in ways that still—since the movie continues to be shown to each generation of young girls—irk feminists. Disney's Snow White has only one wish and that is for a prince to come and take her away. (Yes, this is the movie where the heroine actually trills "Someday, my prince will come!") But while she is waiting, she wants nothing more than to (with a little help from her critter pals) sweep, wash dishes, do laundry, and bake gooseberry pies.

This dainty princess and her joy of domestic drudgery, as well as her longing for a romantic solution, tell us something about the gender attitudes of 1930s America. By the same token, all revisions of fairy tales disclose something about the specific storyteller and their society.

Still, one could argue the Disney version of Snow White was such an influential cultural and cinematic product that all later TV and film adaptations of Snow White story (and there have been too many to count accurately) mimic or respond to Disney as much as they do to the Grimm fairy tale. Specifically, in the last twenty years or so, such films have often tried to add a bit of psychological depth to the beauty-obsessed queen and inject a touch of post-feminist feistiness into the titular heroine.

Until this year, the majority of recent Snow White films have been limited release or straight-to-cable or television affairs. These included an extremely gothic version called Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), gloomily filmed in the Czech Republic and starring Sigourney Weaver as the ominous Lady Claudia and Monica Keena as her noble stepdaughter, Lili. As the Snow White figure is depicted as a rather petulant girl, resentful of her father's remarriage, the antagonism between the young and old beauties is, realistically enough, about more than who's prettiest.

Despite the title, true terror is in little evidence in the movie. But there are certainly a few violent and discreetly bloody scenes and an assortment of half-hearted horror elements on display. These include everything from an early wolf attack and a cesarean-by-butchery birth to the reanimation of a stillborn baby and a trapped bird suffocated by the sand of an hourglass. The twists include a "prince" figure who is actually a (normal height) miner, and the fact that the beautiful protagonist survives her mortal combat with her stepmom with a scarred face.

It's all rather dark and depressing, with an ending that speaks of simple survival more than happily ever after. A sunnier and more traditional family-friendly approach was taken by director Caroline Thompson in Snow White: The Fairest of Them All (2001), a film that was released theatrically in Europe and the Middle East before landing, appropriately enough, on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney in 2002. Here, the King is an accidental one, granted a kingdom and new queen after inadvertently saving a wizard. (Or is he a demon?). Unfortunately for the newly crowned monarch, his new consort, Queen Elspeth (played well by Miranda Richardson), is a former warted hag whose social isolation was broken only by the chance to turn gnomes and other forest sprites into statuary.

Because Elspeth was ugly and unloved before, her obsession with her newfound beauty and rank is almost understandable. The ascendant beauty of stepdaughter Snow White (Kristin Kreuk) is a threat answered with murderous resolve. In this version, the title heroine rejects beauty as a physical attribute in favor of a definition based on compassion and integrity. But, alas, a lack of vanity can't keep this Snow White from a see-through coffin reminiscent of Grimm and Disney. Although in this version, her death-like enchantment is broken by the kiss of a prince in very unusual form.

Snow White: The Fairest of Them All features a few amazingly good (for the budget) special effects. And if you ever wanted your seven dwarves to resemble Teletubbies, or wished you could see the evil queen meet her comeuppance at the hands of vindictive garden gnomes, then this is your film.

These days, however, market research—and the success of films like The Hunger Games—seems to have convinced Hollywood that moviegoers are looking for a more kick-ass kind of heroine. (Heck, even Uncle Walt's descendents at Disney-Pixar opted for a warrior princess hero in this summer's cartoon feature, Brave.) So, despite the tradition of Snow White being a relatively passive protagonist, the two very different retellings of Snow White that hit theaters this past spring had very little in common except for the fact that both updated Snow White into a fierce Amazon more likely to pick up a sword than a mirror.

The first up was Mirror Mirror, a very odd little movie written by Marc Klein and Jason Keller from a story by Melisa Wallack. It was directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall), a filmmaker known more for his visual flair than for his ability to tell a cohesive story. Mirror Mirror shows that Mr. Singh's strengths and weaknesses have not changed.

I have seen few films as inconsistent in tone as this one. Is it a pastiche? A drama? A light-hearted romantic comedy? A kiddie film? An acrobatic cirque? A Bollywood musical? At different moments, it appears to be one thing, but then veers off in a completely different direction. Although it is possible for a film to effectively mix a variety of elements into a cohesive cinematic experience, Mirror Mirror is not such a movie. The film's various components clash in a manner that leaves the audience (and seemingly, the actors) unsure of what is going on.

The star power of Mirror Mirror is provided by the "Pretty Woman" herself, Julia Roberts, as the evil queen. But Julia Roberts is badly miscast in the movie. She is, in fact, "pretty" in an ordinary, almost gawky, All-American way. She is not dramatically beautiful. And, more importantly, haughty and arrogant and cruel are—bless her heart—difficult attributes for the actress to convey. Roberts is most effective in a scene when the story's Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) shows her face-lapping puppy dog devotion, after she gives him the wrong love potion. The scene allows her to giggle and wriggle and be funny. That is one of her talents. Channeling Cruella De Vil is not something she can pull off.

Young Lily Collins is better cast as Snow White. With her pale skin and dark brow and red-lipsticked lips, she is fresh and lovely, and captures a delightful gamine quality reminiscent of the young Audrey Hepburn. And when she is trained as a street-fighter and swordswoman by her seven dwarf friends, she also easily exemplifies the kind of spunky heroism that a twenty-first-century action-Snow needs to project. Supporting players include Sean Bean as the king and Nathan Lane as the Queen's very Disney-like henchman servant. He, at least, seems to be having a good time.

As always in a Tarsem film, some of the visuals are very impressive here and Eiko Ishioka's fabulous costumes certainly make filmgoers mourn her January death. I loved the fact that this movie's seven dwarves were highwaymen wearing accordion stilts, transforming them from little people to back-flipping giants capable of subduing anyone. But not even a delightful Bollywood number that caps off the final wedding scene and ushers in the final credits can keep you from feeling confused and cheated after watching Mirror Mirror.

For a completely different retelling of Snow White, which suffers from some of the same failings as Mirror Mirror, fairy tale princess fans could also attend Snow White and the Huntsman this spring.

Snow White and the Huntsman does, at least, have a generally consistent tone—it is dark and sinister, tinted with a pseudo-medieval (and deeply Anglophilic) militarism suggestive of the Lord of the Rings movies. Written originally by Evan Daugherty and then reworked by John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, the project is the first feature directed by Rupert Sanders, who heretofore was known for his impressive commercials advertising things like video games. Like Tarsem Singh, Mr. Sanders is a man in love with dazzling visuals and special effects. And this movie has plenty of them. But the film itself is overlong and rather tedious, and appears to be an elaborate set-up for a love-triangle sequel that I hope will never happen.

As with Mirror Mirror, casting is one of the shortcomings of Snow White and the Huntsman. This time, however, the Queen is not the issue. Here, an evil sorceress queen, Ravenna, is played with malicious delight by the stately and drop-dead exquisite Charlize Theron. Theron can easily convince anyone that she is hypnotically beautiful. And menace and insanity is something she can also tap as an actor. The challenge here is to keep a character who eats raw bird hearts for snacks and sucks the youth out of young virgins from turning into something high camp. Theron can pull this off, too. In fact, she even imbues her evil queen with a depth and near-vulnerability that makes you wish the character were in a better film.

In Snow White and the Huntsman, the weak link is the casting of the title character. Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) stars as a waif turned Jeanne d'Arc version of Snow White, but she can't pull off the character any more than she can a British accent. K-Stew has a rather bedraggled and dazed look that might have suited Bella, but doesn't capture the fresh beauty of Snow White. And when she tries to do the girl-power thing and lead an army into battle against the evil queen who murdered and betrayed her father, she is completely incapable of firing up the troops or impressing the movie audience.

The visual effects of the film—an evil queen dissolving into a flapping, scattering unkindness of ravens or reforming out of a pool of tar and feathers—are often stunning. But they don't necessarily help the story. In fact, the entire side journey into fairyland (where tiny sprites emerge from the breasts of magpies) is nothing more than an excuse for pretty bits of dazzle. The extended scene seems pasted on from a completely different film.

The other title character, the Huntsman, is played by Thor's Chris Hemsworth. A suitably fierce hunk of man he is, but I didn't believe for a minute that he was smitten and redeemed by Stewart's princess. And, although they appear rather late in the game, there are actually seven dwarf miners in this retelling, played by digitally miniaturized versions of first rate actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone. The dwarf scenes are some of the best in the movie. But while the little men interact with one another quite well, they never seem to have an emotional connection to Snow White herself. Neither does the film.

So, we have two failed experiments in modernizing the Snow White tale this year. And no doubt there will be more cinematic retellings in years to come. In the meantime, if you want a more interesting variant of this fairy tale (and many more), you might want to catch reruns or the DVD of Ginnifer Goodwin in the Snow White role in the Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz ABC series, Once Upon a Time. Although she is not the dewiest of young damsels, Goodwin's Snow White is brave and complex; a female hero who melds the timeless with the modern. Here, at last, is a Snow White who possesses the power to enchant.

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