What defines a good fairy tale movie? Three fairy tale movies hit theaters this year: Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mirror, Mirror. They are so different in theme and tone that a comparison seems a good way to find out what makes a fairy tale movie work. Or not.
Traditional fairy tales are short, and they’re narrative rather than drama: “The child was born, then the queen died, then the king remarried, but the new queen was vain and proud.” Only here and there do you get a bit of a scene and some dialog: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” The fun of turning a fairy tale into a movie or a novel is that you have a chance to expand, fill in the gaps, develop the characters, and dramatize the conflicts. But you still have to capture the elements that give the fairy tale its special flavor.
Like any good story, a fairy tale needs a hero or heroine we care about, who faces some problem important enough to matter, whether it’s changing her own fate or saving a kingdom. And it needs villains, or at least challenges, that test the hero and that are worth overcoming.
Many people would say that a fairy tale also needs a “happily ever after” romance. Though I don’t agree, I understand the expectation. Many fairy tales do end with the hero winning the princess, or the heroine being rescued by the prince. It’s only natural for an expanded version to turn that relationship into the typical romantic subplot.
A fairy tale isn’t a fairy tale without Magic, of course. The magic might come from enchanted creatures, magic artifacts, or good and evil magicians, but it must be indispensible to the plot. And more than magic, the best fairy tales have a touch of wonder, something unique, mysterious, memorable: a mirror that speaks in rhyme; a beanstalk that grows to the sky; a castle asleep for a hundred years.
And, perhaps most important, a fairy tale needs to be a little scary. The witch eats children, the giant plans to grind your bones to bread. A happy ending always takes its brightness from the depth of the darkness the hero or heroine has to defeat.
Let’s take these elements one at a time and see how each movie stands up.
First, the hero and the challenge. In all three movies, the central conflict is a mother-daughter relationship. This is standard in the most popular princess-type fairy tales (Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White), with the mother figure, whether mother, witch, or wicked stepmother, standing in the way of the heroine marrying the prince and thereby becoming an adult. (In contrast, the fairy tale hero becomes an adult by leaving home and completing a dangerous quest that wins him a princess and a kingdom.)
Brave starts from the old motif of three princes contending for the hand of a princess, and asks what the princess thinks of being a contest prize. Princess Merida isn’t having it. She spends the movie trying to “change her fate” and escape the future that her mother, the Queen, has planned for her. Even though this is a Pixar movie with lots of kid-friendly humor, any adult can identify with the mother trying to raise a responsible child and the daughter who wants to shape her own future. And long before the end, Merida’s whole family is at risk, along with three kingdoms.
Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror are, of course, retellings of Snow White. In both, Snow White is transformed, like every 21st century movie princess, from the old story’s passive doll waiting to be rescued, into a sword-wielding hero determined to recover her kingdom for herself.
And that’s where the resemblance ends. Mirror’s Snow, a put-upon teenager essentially grounded by her stepmother, runs away to live in a Christmas card forest with saucy dwarfs who teach her how to fight and rob travelers. Meanwhile the Queen (Julia Roberts) luxuriates in her candy-colored palace, berates her henchman Nathan Lane, and schemes to marry the Prince, who schemes to get back to the mysterious robber girl of the forest. It’s tasty fun while you’re consuming it, full of silly physical humor and the cast happily hamming it up. But there’s not a crumb of anything important at stake here.
(Part 2 is coming next week).