Snow White the Swordswoman? MIRROR, MIRROR

Mirror Mirror movie posterWho is the fairest one of all? More important to us here, who is the finest fencer? MIRROR, MIRROR is the first of a flurry of films based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and strangely, each of these upcoming movies seems to be transforming the hapless apple-chomping princess into a skilled swordswoman. Starring Julia Roberts as the Queen and relative newcomer Lily Collins as Snow, MIRROR, MIRROR began as a dark 3D re-imagining of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Producer Brent Ratner (RUSH HOUR) described screenwriter Melisa Wallack's initial draft of what was then titled The Brothers Grimm: Snow White as "not your grandfather's Snow White." Wallack's screenplay took a sharp turn when visionary filmmaker Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (THE CELL, THE FALL) took the director's chair. It is now being presented as "hilarious fun for the whole family" which is, in fact, just what it is.

Coincidentally, right about when Singh signed on, another Snow White project emerged. Scheduled for release on June 1, 2012, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN stars TWILIGHT's) Kristen Stewart as Snow and Charlize Theron as the Queen. The trailers echo the original concept for MIRROR, MIRROR, full of darkness and 3D. They feature an armor-clad sword-wielding Snow; Stewart looks more like Joan of Arc than the fairest princess. Ironically, MIRROR, MIRROR's Lily Collins auditioned for Snow for this film too.

The most intriguing project for readers is coming from Disney, which produced the reigning queen of Snow Whites with their 1937 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. It was the first full-length animated feature film and is ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the Greatest 100 Films of All Time, as well as the Greatest American Animated Film of All Time. The Magic Kingdom's mammoth princess industry owes it all to Snow, not only the fairest, but the first Disney princess ever.

Snow White and 7 Dwarves

ORDER OF SEVEN is a Disney-produced Snow White re-imagining based in China. The kicker, and we do mean kicker, is that the dwarves are to be replaced with Shaolin monks. Originally titled Snow and the Seven, this project has been bandied about since 2005. Early rumors attached Natalie Portman as Snow and Jet Li presumably as one of the monks. Although Portman turned down the role in 2008, she later quipped that "They should do kung fu versions of every fairytale." With the flurry of Snow Whites, ORDER OF SEVEN just picked up traction again, announcing that Saoirse Ronan (HANNA) is in final negotiation for Snow. It is a strange case of Snow-swapping, as Ronan was rumored as a short-list Snow candidate for both MIRROR, MIRROR and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN.

If that's not all, a parallel project has been announced in China. Also coming in 2012, PRINCESS AND THE SEVEN KUNG FU MASTERS is from the eclectic director Wong Jing and features the mighty kung fu veteran, Sammo Hung. While not a direct retelling of the Snow White tale, it does feature a princess in distress who is saved from political intrigue and the wilderness by a band of seven. Early buzz doesn't mention an evil queen, but there is a female ninja spy, so perhaps a poisoned shuriken will be swapped for a poisoned apple. As for magic mirrors, that remains to be seen.

This brings us neatly back to the topic at hand. MIRROR, MIRROR reunites Tarsem with fight choreographer and coordinator Jean Frenette. They worked together on Tarsem's last film, IMMORTALS. Frenette is a five-time world karate champion from Canada. He pioneered the division we now know as "musical kata," which are spectacular forms set to music. Frenette was the first to choreograph his kata so that his strikes were in time with the music, which was a major breakthrough back in the '80s. His strong foundation in traditional Shito Ryu karate, accentuated by a phenomenal left leg that could deliver rapid-fire kicks at every angle, made for a winning combination. He enjoyed performing to Survivor's Eye of the Tiger from ROCKY III, and that song still pervades martial arts tournaments of all styles to this very day. Frenette successfully parlayed his martial arts skills into stunt work and fight choreography. His company, On Set Stunts, has accumulated many cinematic accolades and is based in Montreal. Frenette has over two-hundred films to his credit on IMDB .

It was Frenette's task to make the swordfights convincing. Outside of the martial arts genre, most actors are naïve about how to properly handle a sword. "We spent probably three or four weeks, several hours a day, doing a lot of sword fighting," said Armie Hammer who plays Snow's Prince. "It was fun getting to learn how to swordfight." Collins, the daughter of drummer Phil Collins, even sustained some slight injuries during the swordfights. Though she wasn't cut (thanks to protective padding), she suffered bruises. Collins later acknowledged her realization that swords are lethal. Nevertheless, a keen martial eye can catch Collins holding her sword improperly like a hammer in a few scenes. Her first two fingers fail to cross the quillon and pas d'ane. This is trivial however. Frenette's choreography delivers light and comic fight scenes apropos to "fun for the whole family," including an archetypal flirty sword fight. This is a fairy tale, after all, and only armchair martial artists fuss over proper technique in film.

A new sort of fariey tale castle

Tarsem's baroque visual sense instantly transports the audience to a world of lush fantasy. The sets are outrageously ornate and special effects are sumptuously surreal, especially the depiction of the magic mirror. Tarsem's penchant for eye candy is the perfect sweetener for this time-honored fairytale. The bright color schemes are heightened by the brilliant costumes, designed by the Academy Award-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka. Considered Japan's leading art director and graphic designer, Eiko has worked on all four of Tarsem's major films. Sadly, MIRROR, MIRROR is her final project. Eiko passed away in January 2012, and MIRROR, MIRROR is lovingly dedicated to her.

Julia Roberts delivers a delicious scene-stealing performance, vamping it up to her fullest as the evil queen. She really sinks her perfect teeth deep into the role, hamming her venomous character up to truly regal proportions. While Disney's evil queen remains one of the Magic Kingdom's most sinister villains ever, Roberts infuses MIRROR, MIRROR's queen with comic vanity, exemplified by a satirical medieval take on Botox treatments. And yet, she retains her toxicity through to the very last scene. Roberts' portrayal updates the evil queen, developing her character and making for a serious contender for the best evil queen crown to date.

Julia Roberts as THE QUEEN

The dwarves appear as a hybrid of Peter Pan's Lost Boys and the TIME BANDITS. While they often stoop to slapstick (why is dwarf slapstick so universally funny?), their individual characters are fleshed out respectfully and their comic timing is spot on. They serve as seven Yodas, training Snow's skills in scenes poached directly from the kung fu movie genre. Nathan Lane provides a perfect toady foil to the queen. Armie Hammer is adequately dashing and often shirtless. Lily Collins, with her prominent raven eyebrows and eyes as large as an anime character, captures Snow's innocence, along with her coming of age, in this retelling.

Snow's conversion to swordswoman underscores a 2012 trend towards empowered heroines in cinema. From MMA champion Gina Carano's acting debut in HAYWIRE, to David Fincher's Oscar-nominated redux of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, to the girl archers in THE HUNGER GAMES and BRAVE, so far the year of the dragon is looking more like the year of the dragon lady at the movies. Even the new Avatar is a girl. Nickelodeon's highly-anticipated follow up to AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER centers on a spitfire (and spitwater and spitearth) of a female lead. THE LAST AIRBENDER: LEGEND OF KORRA premieres two weeks after MIRROR, MIRROR opens.

Director Tarsim and his 7 Dwarves

Snow White's conversion to a swordswoman is highly symbolic, as traditionally she is one of the least empowered fairytale princesses. Her beauty is her handicap. She is the victim of the evil queen's vanity and is only saved by men: first the huntsman who spares her, then the dwarves who shelter her, and finally the prince who awakens her. In the Grimm Brothers version, the evil queen deploys three traps (the first two were omitted from the Disney version and have consequently been lost in most successive versions). First she tries to suffocate Snow by over-tightening the stay-laces on her bodice. Next, she tries to brush her hair with a poison comb. The poison apple is the final blow. The metaphor of death by stay-laces and comb, both symbolic of female beauty, are clear. The apple is a loaded icon. From the Forbidden Fruit of Eden to the Eris' Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War, a lot could be read into a poisoned apple. Perhaps that is a contributing factor in the timelessness of this tale. To convert Snow to a swordswoman is as empowering as it gets for medieval fantasies. The sword is even more iconic than the apple. There's a Freudian aspect to swordswomen that we've seen exploited in films like SUCKER PUNCH. In contrast, MIRROR, MIRROR takes a wholesome approach. Snow White evolves into a positive role model for young girls, which is a rare treasure in media today. Snow is strong, smart, and fights against injustice. She can take care of herself. She can face her own demons and emerge victorious. What better moral for young women can there be?

For the ending credits, Tarsem revisits his music video roots by delivering a Bollywood-style epilogue. It's a joyful conclusion to what is destined to become a beloved classic fairytale film like STARDUST or THE PRINCESS BRIDE. It truly is hilarious fun for the whole family. The first Snow has arrived. Any following Snows will have to work hard to best this one.

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