Fairy tales can come true,the old song goes. Whether one believes this hopeful sentiment,and regardless of the age of ones internal organs,theres no doubt that fairy tales have for the past couple of years been coming pretty regularly to screens both big and small. Now Tarsem Singhs Mirror Mirror,a zippy new version of the Snow White story,arrives,and yet another retelling,Snow White and the Huntsman,is threatened for this year. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters looms on the horizon too. And two of the livelier series of the current television season,Grimm and Once Upon a Time,are based on tricky fairy-tale premises. The entertainment industry,with its childlike trust in the powers of its own magic,clearly believes well be enchanted.
Maybe so,but the characteristic tone of fairy tales and folk tales,which is derived from oral storytelling traditions,is awfully difficult to replicate on screen. Just last year Catherine Hardwickes Red Riding Hood and Daniel Barnzs Beastly (an updated Beauty and the Beast) showed that there are many dangers for filmmakers who venture into these dark woods. Red Riding Hood tries telling the familiar tale in a more or less traditional manner. The big-eyed,big-eared wolf that menaces Red and her granny has been turned into a werewolf,and an alarming lycanthrope-hunting cleric has been added. But the picture is terrible. The younger actors sound as if theyre speaking Esperanto; the older ones look weary and dazed.
Beastly takes a different tack,transporting an old story to our brave new world,and its just as unconvincing. Barnz sets the action in a Manhattan prep school,where an arrogant,good-looking rich kid is transformed by a witch into an ugly guy. He has to learn to be a good enough person for the sweet heroine to love him in spite of his looks. The problem is the protagonist isnt a beast. His beastliness looks like the work of a bad plastic surgeon. The world from which fairy tales emerged has largely vanished. Thanks to computer graphics and the general awfulness of everyday life,fantasies of all kinds have had a resurgence in the past few years. But the social realities on which the original fairy tales depend are almost alien to 21st-century sensibilities; they reek of feudalism.
Mirror Mirror works hard to let the audience know its aware of its own silliness. Although the story is set in a vaguely medieval fairy-tale kingdom,the tone is unapologetically anachronistic. The mean queen seems to have stepped out of one of the riper episodes of Desperate Housewives,while every line in the film is delivered like a sitcom zinger. And Snow White is a much more can-do kind of princess than the passive heroine of yore,and this Prince Charming is quite a bit less masterful. The TV series Grimm and Once Upon a Time are more thoughtful than any of the recent fairy-tale movies have dared to be. Grimm,is mostly a horror show,in which a detective tracks down and vanquishes a beast of the week. The monsters,all with German names,pass for human; only a Grimm,a hereditary monster hunter like the cop,can see them for what they actually are. This is a handy power to have in 2012.
Once Upon a Time has a more elaborate concept. It seems that the evil queen of the Snow White story has put a curse on every other fairy-tale character: theyve been transported to our time,to live in a small town,unaware of who they were in their previous,storybook existence. The show evokes a chronic sense of unreality. At its best Once Upon a Time can make you feel both young and very,very old at heart.