Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who Is Snow White, After All? (Movie Notes)

16 May

When I walked out of the theater after seeing Mirror, Mirror, all I wanted to do was turn around and go see it again. I don’t have this reaction to many films. Starring Academy Award-winner Julia Roberts as the aging Queen and Lily Collins (The Blind Side) as the beguiling Snow White, this take on the classic fairytale upended my expectations; offered twists in just the right places; and was equally enjoyed (perhaps for different reasons) by me and Culture Sprout. In a season of heroines who push gender barriers, Snow White stands out as a character who is wholly (and wholesomely) feminine and actively defining her own destiny. Being a girl does not mean that this princess is going to get pushed around.

You know the story, of course, of the young princess, whose mother dies in childbirth and whose father remarries and then dies, leaving Snow White in the hands of the beautiful, vain, psychopathic stepmother.  Who better to cast as the “bewitching beauty with a towering temper” than Roberts, whose own breakout moment was the Cinderella-esque Pretty Woman (1990)? Roberts is certainly still gorgeous, but she can no longer command the ingenue roles, much as the evil Queen can no longer claim the “fairest in the land.” She brings delicious irony to the role, clearly enjoying the Queen’s over-the-top temperament.  In this way, she is reminiscent of Helen Bonham Carter’s Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). The costume and special effects render her evilness simply sublime.

Collins, like Snow White, is a young, relatively unknown starlet. Mirror Mirror fashions her in the style of Audrey Hepburn in her own princess movie, Roman Holiday(William Wyler, 1953). The allusion is apt: Snow is a bit naive at first, but once her eyes are opened, she takes charge of her own destiny.Like Anya, Snow sneaks away from her guard. She is not out to experience a day as a regular person; Rather, she wants to see what has happened to the people her father ruled joyfully and kindly. Unlike Hepburn’s Anya, Snow is not uncomfortable with her royalty. Once she sees the desperation her stepmother’s selfish vanity has wrought, she fights to reclaim her throne.

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953)

Lily Collins in Mirror, Mirror (Tarsem Singh, 2012)

Mirror, Mirror turns the tale on its side to make this the story of a princess who earns back her crown, rather than being a victim saved by “true love’s kiss.”  When Brighton (Nathan Lane) cannot bring himself to follow the Queen’s orders to dispose of Snow, Snow becomes a rogue warrior princess, leading a gang of bandit dwarves.

You read that right: Once through the scary forest, Snow charms the dwarves into helping her. They are not miners with cute names. And she is not a simpy, singing girl playing house in the woods with seven little men. These dwarves are outlaws, exiled by the queen because they are “ugly.” Napoleon, Half Pint, Wolf, Butcher, Chuckles, Grub, and, in a lovely nod to the original tale, Grimm, rebel against the Queen by robbing the rich along the forest trails. They do not, however, return the gold to the people. Instead, they hoard it; they are dwarves after all! But, Snow White, knowing the poverty and desperation caused by her stepmother’s rule, convinces the dwarves that they can re-enter society with her if they are willing to be a bit more like Robin Hood. In turn, they train her to use a sword and, in a hilarious sequence reminiscent of a Disney film, help her create a costumed persona for her bandit-self.

My favorite versions of princess stories remake the tale so that the princess takes charge of the situation. Often, as in Tomie de Paola’s Mexican Cinderella, Adelita, this means that magic is not needed to save the day. Love, wit, and intelligence are the qualities fostered by the kind of retellings I relish.  Mirror, Mirror is no different. That’s not to say there is no magic in Mirror, Mirror. And, it doesn’t dismiss the power of true love, either.  There is a prince. And there is a happy ending. But, the trajectory to that place does not involved a poisoned apple, deep sleep, and liberation by a kiss. Not saying the kiss and poisoned apple don’t happen. It wouldn’t be Snow White without them, but they don’t happen in any way you can predict. When Snow finally breaks the Queen’s spell, all kinds of beautiful things happen. No spoilers here: The magic of this film is in how it portrays magic and love . True loves kiss comes from an unexpected place and, in a surprising twist, there is more than one kind of true love to be saved.

As a heroine, Snow White has grit. She has agency, power, and intellect. I can’t help but think of A.O. Scott and Mahnola Dargiss’s “conversation” in the New York Times about The Hunger Game’s Katniss Everdeen as a “Radical Heroine from Dystopia” (April 4, 2012). Like the female heroes they discuss, Snow is not the heroine of yesterday–a poised (poisoned, sleeping) princess waiting for her destiny. She’s not quite the radical heroine they discuss, but she is one who makes her own decisions and choices. Though gowned and gorgeous, Snow is not bound by the constraints of a fairytale femininity. She can swashbuckle with the best of them if it means reclaiming what is rightfully hers. The comparison to Katniss, Lisbeth, and Ripley can only go so far.  But, Snow indicates a continuation of the new kind of female hero Scott and Dargiss discuss.  Perhaps her next incarnation, Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman will prove out the theory.

2 Responses to “Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who Is Snow White, After All? (Movie Notes)”

  1. Brandon Isaacson (@BrandonIsaacson) January 2, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Finally got around to this film and kind of loved it! I prefer this to The Hunger Games & Katniss (movie version — I loved the books).

    • Culture Bean January 2, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

      Am giving a paper on the “Snow White films” at Society for Cinema and Media Studies in March: “The Evolution of Snow White From Screen Darling to Warrior Princess.” Guess I better get working! (I couldn’t bring myself to see The Hunger Games. Book upset me too much.)

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