Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Snow White and the Festering Fairy Tale

I love my sister.  She's everything I'm not, in all the best ways.  She does this thing, where she purses her lips and makes this dog-whistle-pitched fart noise, and...

... anyway, the point is: she's great, but I do kind of want to punch her in the arm for making me sit through Snow White and the Huntsman this weekend.  It was terrible, not in a "this was a total waste of time" way, but in that much more insidious "this could/should have been SO GOOD" way.

Hell-bent to get my money's worth after the fact (well, her money's worth), I've sat back and tried to figure out what derailed my train to Magical Fantasy Wonderland.  Which got me thinking, "all right, so what separates a good fairytale retelling from a bad one?"

Here's what I got.  (Modest Snow White spoilers included; read on if you already know or already know you don't care.)

First of all, one quick political aside: it SUCKS that they did not cast any actual dwarves for this movie.  I wouldn't care as much if they were one-dimensional clownish buffoons, but the writers did a terrific job of making the dwarves into admirable, relatable, interesting characters - which I'm sure is why the casting director said, "oh, these roles are much too important for you, shorties - we'll just shrink Ian McShane & co. down to size and call it a day."  Bastards.  I love what CGI has done for fantasy filmmaking, but every now and then I wish we could go back to the '80s, when you HAD to strip Warwick Davis out of the Ewok suit and let him play Willow.  How many talented actors are missing out on a career because of this digital hobbitizing bullshit?

Anyway, okay, so movie.  Quick, what are some of your favorite fairytale films?  My short-list: The Princess Bride, Shrek, Tangled, and of course The Emperor's New Groove.  I'm sure you have others.  But I'll bet yours follow the same rule as mine:  if you're going to play by fairy-tale rules, you need to keep a fairy-tale atmosphere.  The granddad, in The Princess Bride?  He's not just there to read the book - he keeps reminding us that this IS a book, and a fairytale book at that, so that when ludicrously improbable stuff happens, we are okay with the idea of "mostly dead" or what-have-you, because it fits the story.  The Emperor's New Groove does the same thing in hilarious fourth-wall-breaking fashion, lampshading obvious plot-holes so that we can have a laugh, turn off our inner critic, and get on with the action.

One of these ladies is trying to be taken seriously.

This is one place where Snow White REALLY falls down.  It starts off magically enough, with Thor's voice-over telling the story about the rose, the queen, the fair little princess, etc.  But then we slide right into reality.  The world outside the castle is straight out of Les Miserables: the streets are rivers of mud, the people are filthy and ugly and unshaven - shoot, you can just about feel the itch of the pubic lice.  Everything about the atmosphere is oozing nasty, gritty realism... so by the time Snow White escapes her tower and swims to freedom and there just-so-happens to be a white horse literally sitting on the beach waiting for her to show up, your inner critic is screaming, Artax, what the fuck?
This constant clash of fairytale plot devices and syphilis-blistered setting continues through the whole movie.  Cartoonishly over-the-top Disney villain!  No, wait - implied pedophilia!  Magical happy fairyland paradise!  No, wait - tragic demise of secondary character!  I'm not saying you can't have "true love's first kiss" and "death by boiling oil" in the same story - I'm saying that if you're going to tie your fairytale to a ten-pound brick of gritty realism and drop it off a bridge, you'd better make sure you give it enough internal consistency (i.e. rules for magic) to make the swim.

I have more to say, but this is a good place to stop for now.  So let me turn the mic over in the meantime: what about you guys?  Did you see the movie?  What do you consider essential in a good fairytale?

We're promised gold, and what do we get?  Poo!


  1. Ah yes, Snow white and the Huntsman. Have a friend who loved it, have friends who thought it was ok and have heard of people who hated it. I have not yet seen it though I look forward to casting my own opinion into this melting pot.

  2. I hope you will! I'd be real interested to hear your conclusions, especially since you've practically gotten a black-belt in Harry Potter - there too you get ample servings of 'magical wondrousness' and 'dark scariness' (especially in the later books), and Rowling had a heck of a job to do in blending them together.

  3. Yes she does which is one of the things I ever appreciate about her writing. Technically the HP books are middle grade. Hard to believe when you see all the dark things she tackles in her later books.