Things I Learned From Movie X: Snow White Edition
By Edwin Davies
June 11, 2012

Ice cold!

The summer is well and truly upon us now, and as such we have entered the most spectacularly amazing/depressing (delete according to your respective level of cynicism regarding modern movie-making) time of the year; blockbuster season! As in every year, the season comes with its own delights/horrors to be enjoyed/endured, and this year has been no difference. Heck, we’ve even been treated/assaulted with the opportunity to see not one, but two new takes on Snow White. Aren’t we all so very lucky/doomed?

To reflect this rare occasion, I have decided to break with the traditional Things I Learned From Movie X format of looking at one movie in order to compare and contrast the two Snow Whites, and see what they have to offer.

One part of the phrase “Evil Queen” is more important than the other

When the two competing Snow White adaptations were announced, I assumed pretty early on that the key factor in determining their commercial success, as well as whether or not they would prove to be any good, would come down to how they treated the Evil Queen who sets the whole chain of events into motion by being a murderous, man-eating, Fatal Attraction-ing psycho bitch with a hankering for human hearts. (They’re a great source of protein.)

In pretty much every telling of Snow White, the Queen has been the most interesting character since she’s the one whose actions drive the story - unless you count “looking real purdy” as an action on Snow White’s part - and because she’s just so malevolent. If you consider Walt Disney’s 1938 version, which is undoubtedly the most famous and successful, it’s hard to consider Snow White as a character at all since she’s two-dimensional even by cartoon standards. Her “arc” over the course of the film consists of starting out looking pretty, then getting too pretty, necessitating that the Queen take action and flat-out murder that bitch’s pretty ass, then running away and falling under the protection of the dwarfs, then having a little sleep, then waking up to find out that the Queen is dead and everything is hunky dory. Though both Mirror Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman try to redress that balance by making their respective Snow Whites into warriors who lead the fight against their respective Queens, therefore giving the character a more feminist slant, both are dependent on having a strong, villainous Queen to battle against in order to give their story meaning. In short, the Evil Queen should be, well, evil. Suffice it to say, one of the films has a Queen who is cruel, devastatingly beautiful and, almost as a bonus, has something resembling motivation for that cruel beauty, and the other has Julia Roberts.

The problem with Roberts’ take on the character in Mirror Mirror is not so much that she’s bad – though let’s not beat around the bush here: she is very bad in the role – but that her “comedic” turn, whilst committing the cardinal sin of not being funny, actually works against the adventurous spirit of the rest of the film. So much of Mirror Mirror’s running time is spent giving Roberts limp one-liners to spew out that it forgets to make her into a credible threat, so by the time that the final act comes around, it’s almost as if everyone involved suddenly woke up one day and said, “Oh yeah, she’s meant to be trying to brutally murder this 18-year-old girl. Maybe we should, I don’t know, give her a CGI dragon-wolf to command?” By encouraging the audience to laugh at the Queen’s attempts to woo a young prince (Armie Hammer, whose name sounds so much like a strained pun that I refuse to believe that he is a real person rather than something extracted from the mind of Thomas Pynchon) it takes away any power the character could have as a real threat.

The same could not be said of Charlize Theron’s Queen, who goes so far in the opposite direction that it almost winds up hurting the film. Considering that the character is introduced stabbing Snow White’s father through the heart whilst sitting astride him, it doesn’t take much for the film to say that, yes, she is a pretty big threat, and it just keeps piling on the menace from there. Stealing the youth of young women to keep herself young and powerful? Cutting open the bodies of dead birds and eating their hearts? Conjuring creatures made of black living glass to slice people to shreds? She does it all, and she does it with a wicked, kind of sexy smile. In fact, the only thing that stops Theron from being a completely, unceasingly terrifying presence is her unfortunate tendency to bellow lines like a bear who has just stepped on a plug. Anyone who mocked Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood for the way in which Prince John shouted “an out-laaaaaaaw” will find much to enjoy in some of Theron’s more…exuberant line readings.

Tyrion Lannister is the Rosa Parks of diminutive fictional characters

Both Mirror Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman take the traditional fairytale story, chop it up, and try to rearrange all the pieces into a new, yet familiar shape, much like a mash-up artist or a drunken surgeon. Amongst those key elements are Snow White herself, the Queen, a dark forest, a Prince (of sorts) and, of course, dwarfs. Snow White and The Huntsman dials down on the dwarfs until the second half, instead focusing on building up Snow White’s character as a clever and self-possessed young woman, as well as building the relationship between her and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, who in no way looks just like Thor but with an axe instead of a hammer. Nope). Mirror Mirror, on the other hand, introduces the dwarfs fairly early on and makes their relationship with Snow White central to the story, having her become their leader in time for the eventual final showdown with Queen Runaway Bride.

Whilst the two films take very different approaches to the characters of the dwarfs, right down to how they chose to cast the parts – Mirror Mirror uses actual little people, whilst Snow White and The Huntsman cast the likes of Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Eddie Marsan (a cast which might be more likely to be found in an East End gangster film than high fantasy), and super-imposed their heads on to those of stunt performers – they both treat the dwarfs as comic relief. Although they excise the jolly singing associated with the Disney telling (Snow White and The Huntsman does feature some singing, but one of the songs the dwarfs sing is a funeral dirge, and even the number described as “upbeat” sounds like a Joy Division B-side), there’s still some slapstick and some sight gags on both sides, gags that feel incredibly out of place in the super-serious world of Snow White and The Huntsman (there’s comic relief, and then there’s having six dwarfs hide behind a horse to commit a sneak attack) and which grow kind of wearying over the course of Mirror Mirror.

Taken together, the dwarfs in both films feel less like fun, light-hearted color to be added to proceedings, and more like a kind of midget minstrelsy, in which actual little people are asked to be living punchlines because of how they look, and people of average height pretend to be short for the purposes of entertainment. (The only thing that stops it from being genuine minstrelsy is the lack of an adequate phrase to describe the action of pretending to be a dwarf. “Wearing short-face?” “Shorting-up?” It’s a linguistic nightmare.)

Basically, none of the dwarfs in either film feel like real characters, and neither film treats them with anywhere near the level of gravitas or respect of the characters who could go on all the rides at a theme park. Considering that Peter Dinklage had been receiving well-deserved plaudits for his performance on Game of Thrones, where his character is defined by his actions and not his height, both Snow White films wind up looking horribly retrograde in comparison, and makes you think that it is high time that short actors in Hollywood refuse to move to the back of the bus (metaphorically, of course, since you could always just lift them up and move them if they ever tried that).