Sep 10, 2019
Movie Duel: Snow White and the Huntsman vs. Mirror Mirror
It often happens that Hollywood will release two movies within months of each other that have seemingly identical premises. Have you ever seen this happen and wondered, “Did there really need to be two of these?” Us too! Hence our new feature Movie Duels, in which we watch these two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
For our first installment, we’re going after two “new takes” on the Snow White legend from the fairytale boom we suffered through several years ago: Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror. Let’s see what we find.
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“You’re Not My Real Mommy!”
Because the reinterpretation of classically villainous characters is “in” right now, both Huntsman and Mirror Mirror hang their hats on a revised take on Snow White’s evil stepmother, trying to make her into a more three-dimensional, sympathetic character. Both films are more interested in the idea than the execution, but they err in different ways.
The evil stepmother in Mirror Mirror, Clementianna, is played by Julia Roberts, in an inspired bit of meta-casting that would have worked excellently if Roberts had done her portion of the heavy lifting. The creative team behind Mirror Mirror obviously wanted Roberts to make comedic hay of her public perception as a conceited, frivolous diva. Unfortunately, Julia Roberts is, in fact, every bit the snot that people think she is. She tries, but she lacks the will to jab hard enough at herself to make Clementianna either as funny or as menacing as the script needs her to be. Have you ever seen somebody at an office party toothlessly try to roast their self-important, humorless boss? That’s essentially what Julia Roberts is doing to herself.
Charlize Theron deserves credit for having a more expansive vision for Ravenna, Huntsman’s evil stepmother, but she was sadly shoved into the corner by uncreative screenwriters. Her motivations read like the procrastinatory scribblings of someone who skimmed a Wikipedia article about the male gaze. She hates men for tossing away women when they lose their looks, and gets back at them by using her magic to seduce, kill, and usurp the king with the help of an enchantment that protects her from harm so long as she holds onto her beauty (which she periodically replenishes by de-mentoring the youth out of the kingdom’s pretty young women). It’s thematically confused, to say the least, and Theron, ever the pro, lampshades her character’s ambiguity by cranking up her Villainess Rage past the red line, mercifully supplying some quantum of emotional resonance in this monotonous porridge of a movie.
This Is No Fairy Tale World
Visually, Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror occupy diametrically opposed positions on the aesthetic spectrum. Huntsman falls into the same trap as other fairytale re-imaginings like Jack the Giant Killer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters: its world comes wholesale out of a Grimdark-Fantasy-Universe-In-A-Box from Target. The color-scheme is a suicide-watch smörgåsbord of washed-out grays and muddy browns with nary a primary color to be found. No one but the queen gets to wear anything but colorless rags. Drab, bleak, and un-fun are the watchwords.
By welcome contrast, Mirror Mirror offers up an aggressively whimsical visual universe straight out of the Robitussin hallucination of a thirty-something Pinterest addict who thought the movie version of Into the Woods was too understated. Everything is bright, colorful, clean, and festooned with lace and curlicues. There’s breathtakingly elaborate costume and set design. The impoverished villagers are cleaner, better groomed, and better dressed than most of the nobles in Huntsman. And it works! The visual palette is Mirror Mirror’s one unqualified triumph and likely the reason it was even made.
The Fair-lookingest of them All
I really hate Kristen Stewart. Not exactly a controversial opinion, but god damn, I’ve seen people downloading graphics card drivers who look more engaged than she does in Snow White and the Huntsman. She’s got the glassy, bovine stare and permanently slack mouth of a habitual wake ‘n’ baker (which I’d probably become too, if I had to forget I was appearing in this turd-wich). Her lack of presence wouldn’t be as big a problem had the screenwriters not invested her character with ridiculously contrived messianic overtones (animals genuflect to her, and her presence literally heals wounds). She doesn’t have the charisma needed to lead a fat dude to Five Guys, yet Huntsman wants us to believe she’s the only one who can rally the forces of good and take back the kingdom from the evil witch.
Mirror Mirror’s Snow White, Lily Collins, has both more talent and less strain put upon it. Not only does she not stretch the limits of disbelief as “the fairest of them all”, but her performance hits a good mix of character traits from both ancient and modern fairy tales: she’s idealistic but not naïve, untraveled but not lacking in practical savvy, good but not goody-goody. And I really like the fact that, unlike Kristen Stewart, she doesn’t seem perpetually confused as to where she’s supposed to be looking.
Make it Modern!
“Fairy tales were originally bleak and dark before they got all Disney-fied; Huntsman is just being true to tradition,” is an argument you may hear from complete fucking idiots. Yes, fairy tales are traditionally dark. You know what else they are, traditionally? Intimate. Restrained. Internally consistent, at least as far as fairytale logic goes. This is why so many fairytale movies suck: they try to impose modern Hollywood epic-fantasy conventions on stories that absolutely cannot accommodate them. Huntsman is no different. There’s no such thing as an antihero with a tortured past in a fairy tale. There aren’t supposed to be any huge sieges or climactic boss battles. And in Huntsman, these things come at the expense of things we expect out of fairy tales, like whimsy, wonder, and comic relief. There’s no reason you can’t have both in the same movie, but Huntsman is not that movie.
Mirror Mirror swings in the other direction. It’s not interested in reinventing the Snow White legend for the sensibilities of modern film. Instead, it wants to hit the main story beats with a sort of detached, self-aware (but not necessarily satirical) sense of irony. Everyone’s goofy and over-the-top; everyone’s got a one-liner for every occasion. It’s not put together particularly well, but it’s lighthearted and breezy and won’t make you regret how you spent your afternoon.
Which One Needs To Exist?
Mirror Mirror. It’s pretty far from perfect, but in a sea of grubby, dark, tiresomely epic fairy tale adaptations, it stands out with its willingness to lighten the fuck up and have some fun.