Thursday, March 22, 2012


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. Next week, we'll see the first of not one, but two Dueling Snow White movies due out this spring, Mirror, Mirror. The second, Snow White and the Huntsman  is due out June 1.

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.

(Yes, I know, the original folk tales as set down by Perrault or transcribed by the Grimms are anything but comforting, but that's another blog.)

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.

Take the "It" girl of the moment, Snow White. We all remember the Disney version from 1937 (above), with her piping little soprano voice; a wet-eyed domestic dishrag, she plays mother to the 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, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, right), 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.

(Although, in the show's parallel story, where fairy tale characters are cursed to live in a modern New England town, "Storybrook," not knowing who they are, under the thumb of the Evil Queen/Mayor  (Lana Parrilla), Snow White reverts again to good girl Mary Margaret, a schoolteacher trying to stifle her attraction to her prince, now an amnesia victim with a wife.  I enjoy this series, off and on, especially the flashbacks, but the writers depend way too much on cutesy Disney character names (Grumpy, Jiminy Cricket) in their steaming melange of fairy tale backstory.)

Similarly, in Mirror, Mirror, the story gets a grrl-power twist when Snow White (Lily Collins, below), banished to the forest, becomes the leader of the seven dwarfs, who are a gang of roistering thieves. It also stars Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, and it's directed by Tarsem Singh, who can be a brilliant visionary (The Fall), or incredibly cheesy (Immortals). From the preview trailer, Mirror, Mirror might be both, but overall, the tone looks regrettably campy.

Snow White and the Huntsman features Kristen Stewart—in armor, yet—in a darker revisionist take on the tale. This time, the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent to assassinate Snow White instead mentors her in warrior-training so she can defeat the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). Rookie director Rupert Sanders is a completely unknown quantity (at least to me), but the visuals in the trailer look stunning.

I'm not sure if turning a goody-goody into a warrior is the best possible use of evolution.  (My ideal of a kick-ass modern heroine is still Lisbeth Salander, who outsmarts her vile opponents  with ferocious cunning and nerve.) Still, female role models have to change with the times or lose their currency, and any fairy tale heroine who does more than sit passively by her spindle, waiting for her hero, is a step in the right direction.

At least fairy tale remixes are more interesting than the cult of zombies and vampires that have monopolized pop culture for the last few years—seriously, don't we get enough of those in the GOP debates?

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