What evil website would even dream of pitting the sweetly heroic Snow White against herself in a winner-take-all fight? Movie Smackdown, of course!
The beloved fairy tale figure with the dark hair and pale face is the lead character in two big Hollywood releases this year, Snow White and the Huntsman, opening this weekend, and Mirror, Mirror, which premiered back in March. Although both feature the broad outlines of the original story – evil queen, wrongful imprisonment, dark forest, seven dwarves, etc. – the two movies vary greatly in tone and approach. Huntsman goes the dramatic, big-budget route with monster attacks and a castle siege. Mirror, Mirror is a light comedy featuring Julia Roberts as the not-so-scary villainess requiring constant reassurance from the eponymous prop that she’s the fairest of them all.
So it’s Heavy Snow vs. Funny Snow. Which one will fall into victory?
Is there anybody over the age of seven who isn’t familiar with the Snow White storyline by now? Huntsman more or less follows the traditional telling, with the black-magic-wielding Queen (Charlize Theron) effectively stealing the throne by regicide and locking away Princess Snow (Kristen Stewart) in the castle tower. This is a splendid idea, as the new monarch’s enchanted mirror informs her that the princess is effectively the only person who can challenge her power.
So it’s bad news for the baddie when Snow escapes confinement.
Unfortunately for our heroine, she escapes to the Dark Forest, a witchy, desolate place full of menacing creatures all too happy to make lunch of a young princess. The queen, needing desperately to recapture her rival, dispatches a down-on-his luck huntsman to do the dirty work (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying a very busy summer, with Avengers, Cabin in the Woods and now this). Of course, it wouldn’t be a fairly tale if the huntsman didn’t befriend and ally himself with Snow, so he tropes along with convention here.
Eventually, of course, the two meet the acquaintance of the dwarves (not to mention a handsome prince from Snow’s childhood), and before long Miss White is leading a win-or-die assault on the Queen’s realm.
The Defending Champion
Mirror, Mirror also roughly follows the plot outline of its source material. Queen Julia does the ruthless murder-of-royal-husband thing and sequesters his offspring (Lily Collins from The Blind Side and TV’s 90210), only in this less brutal version, Snow is only placed under house arrest.
There’s a prince, of course, in this case handsome young Alcott (Armie Hammer). He’s from the kingdom down the road and he’d probably stay there if he weren’t nearly mugged by robbers in the forest dividing his realm from the Queen’s. It just so happens that coincides with Snow violating her house arrest and decamping to the same forest for some exploring. They meet, and before they’re separated, he is smitten.
Prince Alcott soon ventures to the castle in search of Snow, but the Queen quickly develops a fancy for him, not least because he comes from a wealthy kingdom while hers is going broke. So he’s perfect prince consort material for the evil monarch, but to her great annoyance, he expresses desire for her hated rival, Snow White.
Bursting with jealousy, the Queen banishes Snow to the forest in hope that the evil beasts rumored to lurk there will devour the young princess and solve the Queen’s problem. Luckily, Snow befriends those would-be prince-muggers, who turn out to be a gang of dwarves (no prizes for guessing how many there are). Princess and little people quickly become allies against the evil Queen, giving Snow the chance to dethrone Bad Julia and while she’s at it, find true love along the way.
It says something about the simplicity and power of the original story that it can be adapted almost equally well into both an epic drama and a frothy comedy. Both of these movies work pretty effectively, with their respective tones being maintained throughout the story, right up to the time – spoiler alert, for those who have lived on a distant planet since childhood – Snow takes the throne.
Huntsman particularly scores points for its cinematography and set design, with a beautifully and believably rendered fantasy world. This really kicks in after Queen Charlize grabs the throne; plants wither and die, the castle starts to crumble, and that forest gets gnarly and begins to earn its sinister name. It helps that the movie had a bigger budget than Mirror, Mirror which, though it’s also imaginatively realized, feels more set-bound and thus more limited in scope. Fairy tales work better when the world they inhabit is more sweeping and immersive.
The funny Snow has the edge in terms of establishing and maintaining the right tone for its approach. There’s plenty of humor throughout, from the Queen’s obvious insecurities to the clumsy scheming of the prince. By contrast, Huntsman occasionally strays into the wilds of melodrama, which impacts the crucial figure of the evil Queen most of all. Theron’s a talented actress, but her best work is subtle and understated. The direction in this movie has her ranting, raving and DECLAIMING HER INTENTIONS AS LOUDLY AS POSSIBLE!!! It’s a hammy performance forced on someone who’s much better when the volume of her character is turned down. And it makes the Queen less scary than she could be in favor of an almost comic bluster that doesn’t quite work.
Another human resources problem inherent in the material is the central character. Ultimately, being as virtuous and virginal as she is, Snow’s really kind of boring. Mirror, Mirror neatly dodges this issue by cutting the screen time of our heroine, at least a bit. In Huntsman, because Stewart is such a big star these days, that was never going to happen. But like Theron, she’s squeezed into a space where she doesn’t fit well; as evidenced in The Runaways, she does better work in secondary roles where she can disappear into character. As pleasant as she is to look, her charisma isn’t strong enough to carry a film.
By contrast, in shifting the character emphasis, Mirror, Mirror succeeds a bit more in maintaining its pace and viewer interest. Queen Julia is one of the funniest things in that movie and always cool to watch.
Both of these movies are well made and worthy of viewing, but the serious version overdoes it a bit and spends nearly all its time with a Snow who isn’t all that interesting and a Queen who’s over the top. Mirror Mirror is more entertaining and so takes the winner’s throne, at least until the next in succession comes along.