Posted by: kshayes513 | September 23, 2012

Watching Fairy Tale Movies, Part 2

(If you missed Part 1, read it here.)

Snow White and the Huntsman gives us a very different heroine than the lighthearted girl in Mirror, Mirror. Kristen Stewart’s Snow White sees her father murdered before her eyes, and spends most of her adolescence imprisoned in the tallest tower, while her sorceress stepmother (played with creepy grandeur by Charlize Theron) preserves her beauty by literally sucking the life out of her stolen kingdom.

The story’s scope, too, seems immeasurably broader than either Brave or Mirror. It paints a medieval fantasy history of the usurping queen, the kingdom now dying under her reign, and the banished court factions who need Snow as a leader for their war of reconquest. The final significant piece here is the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a minor character in the original tale. At first lost in suicidal, drunken grief for his murdered wife, he reluctantly becomes Snow’s protector and champion. While we care about Snow’s escape from the Queen almost as reflexive response to the plot, the Huntsman’s struggle to turn from grief toward life gives us something more human to care about.

When we look for the obligatory romance, Mirror presents it in completely traditional, not to say clichéd movie romance style, from the meet/cute through the misunderstandings and separations to the happy ever after. However, romance is conspicuously missing from the other movies. In Brave, this absence is not an omission but a deliberate reversal of the standard trope of winning the princess. Since Merida’s problem is that her mother plans to make her just that kind of political prize, it’s a win that she ends the movie unattached and in control of her own future.

Snow, on the other hand, has caught a fair amount of flak for not having a love story. With a hunky lead actor, and a lead actress best known as a romantic star, audiences expected some kind of romance to blossom between Snow White and her Huntsman. The nearest we get is that it’s not Snow’s nobly born childhood friend who kisses her awake from the poisoned apple. It’s the Huntsman. Yet in this movie’s historical setting, is a happy-ever-after romance between a princess and her huntsman really believable? Even if they fell in love during their adventure, once Snow becomes Queen, she can’t have a peasant as her consort, and he doesn’t belong in the world of the noble court.

When it comes to magic, Snow and Brave give us both human magic that is clearly defined and clearly has a price; and non-human magic that evokes moments of awe or gasps of wonder. Snow even goes Brave one better, in showing that this world has significant good magic as well as the black magic that characters are using for themselves. And that, of course, is the essential thing about magic. Use it for the good of others, and all will be well. Use it thoughtlessly or selfishly, and it will destroy you every time. Both evil queens in the Snow White retellings get their desserts, but like everything else in Mirror, the Queen’s magic (the only magic in the movie), and her punishment for using it, just don’t seem especially consequential.

The same goes for Mirror and the scary. The nearest the movie gets to any kind of shiver is what lies on the other side of the magic mirror: a mysterious cabin floating on a lake. For the rest, despite the Queen’s determined greed, an unseen monster, and all the Queen’s men, we never feel any real alarm for the good guys.

Brave, though also for children, is as scary as it needs to be, in all the right places. The standing stones and the mysterious wisps that lead Merida through the dark forest are good for shivers that might be wonder or fear. The witch may be comical, but her magic is real enough to threaten Merida’s family; and the enchanted bears are frighteningly, bearishly dangerous.

Snow wins the scary stakes hands down. As a fairy tale for adults, it can go to town with the dark and disturbing, and it does. There are haunted forests, monsters and trolls, enchanted black knights and the queen’s creepy, albino brother. And suitably most disturbing, the Queen herself. Theron’s mirror-shattering beauty is a perfect contrast to the black magic that surrounds her: gowns and jewelry made of bones, feasts of disemboweled songbirds, and vampirish magic sucking the youth out of everyone around her.

In every category that makes a fairy tale retelling work, Brave and Snow White and the Huntsman each succeed, though in completely different ways. Mirror, Mirror falls short on every count. The lesson here is that fairy tales have profound mythic, cultural and emotional roots. If you fail to respect the depths, and instead treat these stories like silly kid stuff, you’ll end up looking silly yourself.

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Responses

  1. It’s interesting to me that the fairy tales chosen for movie production conform to the male mythic pattern – women are either evil (the stepmothers) or have as their goal marriage (subordination) to male partners. I have just been an outside reader on a dissertation for Pacifica University by Jody Bowers that takes a whole lot of narratives from short stories, fiction, etc by women and sees quite a different pattern, in which the goal for women heroes is their own maturation and self-development. (She’s Leaving Home: Recurrent Motifs in Women’s Narratives). Snow seems to conform more to this type of narrative.

  2. Annis, certainly the fairy tales that most of us know best do have these types of female roles. And the male centered ones these days are not only less well known, but do usually treat the princess as a prize. Brave works as well as it does – the princess breaking free of her mothers matchmaking plans and winning acceptance as her mother’s equal – partly because the original story was written by a woman, and two women and two men are credited with the final script (in Hollywood, 20 others could still have worked on it and not gotten a credit, but from what I’ve read, the main creative force seems to have been a woman. Snow White and the Huntsman is especially interesting because the original script came from a man who, operating from the Hollywood assumption that chicks like romance and guys like action, was trying to give the story an “action” dimension that would appeal to a male audience as well. In the process, he also made Snow White into an active, self-determining heroine who does not end up with a husband. I’ve no idea whether this was part of his goal, or just the direction the story took him.


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