When the going gets tough, the tough turn to—fairy tales?
Our pop culture is suddenly besotted with fairy tales. Sure, they’ve always been around, and always will be, as long as Disney keeps popping out new, updated, special collector’s edition DVDs of its greatest hits.
But right this nanosecond, the genre is surging in popularity. The fairy tale mash-up Once Upon A Time is one of the biggest hits of the current TV season. Last week, the fairest movie in the land was Snow White and the Huntsman, the second two Dueling Snow White movies released this spring, after Mirror, Mirror, last March.
Why fairy tales? Why now? For one thing, they are morality tales (like Aesop’s Fables, Greek mythology, and most religions) that evolved out of the collective subconscious centuries ago and deal in potent, timeless themes—love, hate, envy, oppression, betrayal, revenge. With so much of our chaotic world and even our own lives beyond our control, we return to these comforting allegories of good vs. evil. (Not that the original dark tales as transcribed by the Brothers Grimm were all that comforting, but at least wickedness was always punished in no uncertain terms.)
For another thing, these familiar tales we already know are in the public domain, meaning they can be endlessly tweaked, trifled with and revised to suit modern sensibilities (with no worries about copyright infringement).
Take the “It” girl of the moment, Snow White. We all remember the Disney version from 1937, with her piping little soprano voice; a wet-eyed domestic dishrag, she plays mother to the seven dwarfs, while her song of yearning, “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” launched a thousand feminist tracts decades later.
In one of the many plotlines in the tangled briar patch that is the Once Upon A Time scenario on TV, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), banished to the forest, becomes a highway robber to survive. Which guarantees that she and her Prince Charming-to-be (Josh Dallas) will “meet cute” when she holds him up in the woods. This is meant to be a more (ahem) proactive Snow, infused with a dose of modern pluck. But in the parallel story, where all the fairy tale characters are cursed to live in a modern New England town, “Storybrook,” not knowing who they are, Snow White reverts again to good girl Mary Margaret, a schoolteacher trying to stifle her attraction to her prince, who is married to someone else.
In Mirror, Mirror, the seven dwarfs are a gang of roistering thieves who teach Snow White (Lily Collins) cunning and survival. Director Tarsem Singh has the vision to use real dwarf actors, and, happily, this Snow White does not become their surrogate mother. But the emphasis on campy slapstick (including Julia Roberts’ catty, but never sinister Queen) is almost as fatal as a poison apple to the project.
Snow White and the Huntsman is director Rupert Sanders’ attempt to re-tell the story as dark fantasy, with a nod to the horrific nature of the original tales. Charlize Theron is a marvelous Evil Queen, leaving a trail of dessicated virgins whose souls she’s sucked out to maintain her eternal beauty. Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is an action heroine who escapes captivity in the palace and flees into the wood, while the dissolute Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), is a would-be assassin who becomes her ally instead.
The film could have used a warmer, more empathetic actress than angsty Stewart in the lead. And despite a fabulous beginning (including a delightful enchanted fairy forest where the dwarfs live), the story falls apart in its battle-siege finale, when Snow White dons armor and leads an army into the Queen’s castle keep.
I’m not sure if turning a goody-goody into a warrior is the best possible kind of evolution. (In this story in particular, a stealthy approach would have made more sense, cost fewer lives, and been just as dramatic.) Still, as fairy tale allegories go, any heroine who does more than sit passively by her spindle, waiting for her hero, is a step in the right direction.
And as phenomena go, I’ll take a good fairy tale remix any day over the perplexing cult of the zombie apocalypse that’s sucked the brains out of pop culture for so long.