By now, you've seen the billboards advertising the two Snow White movies arriving in theaters shortly. You may not know about “Snow White: The Complete Works on Paper,” an exhibition of paintings by Camille Rose Garcia at Michael Kohn Gallery, but you should. The L.A. market is saturated, yes — there was even Ballet Preljocaj's production of Snow White, featuring fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier's contemporary costumes, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last week. But each of these renditions of a story we think we already know seeks to chart an entirely independent course, with all manner of visual delights along the way.
The most popular iterations of Snow White to date are the 1812 fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and the 1937 Disney animated movie. The new films, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, as well as Garcia's ink-and-watercolor pieces, contain traces of those well-worn versions but only as part of a hodgepodge of other influences, from 10th-century women's fashion to Gaudí's architecture to groundbreaking 1930s animator Max Fleischer. These projects' artistic innovation ushers Snow White gallantly into the modern era as a woman who no longer needs rescuing.
The signature elements of Garcia's paintings are gothic-style figures, dripping backgrounds and bold black lines contrasted with bright colors. But the work's pervasive melancholy belies a self-professed Disney junkie who says, “I use iconic fairy-tale symbols in my work to tell my own story.” So when it came time for Harper Design to select an illustrator for its new Snow White book (published in February), Garcia was a natural fit.
To prepare, she revisited not only the “sanitized” Disney film but also the “horror and brutality” of the folktales that predated the Grimms' narrative, and ultimately settled on a mixed aesthetic. The 40 pieces Garcia conceived for the book (which now grace the walls of Michael Kohn Gallery) depict a Snow White who's both sweet-faced and sexy, à la Fleischer's Betty Boop, with a peppermint-candy dress, extended eyelashes and a big, red bow in her shiny black hair. These disparate details send a message about her refreshing psychological depth: Sure, she still likes frolicking in the forest with birds and butterflies and her beloved dwarves, but she knows how to rock a corset and cleavage, too, and that bumbling prince won't know what hit him.
Positioned as similarly multidimensional is the protagonist of the Rupert Sanders–directed Snow White and the Huntsman, a sword-wielding, no-nonsense kind of girl (played by Kristen Stewart) who can't be bothered to wear a poufy dress because it will get in her way as she learns the art of war. But she's still the fairest in the land, and it fell to Colleen Atwood, three-time Oscar winner for Best Costume Design, to expose the diamond in the rough while weighing the practical considerations of how to outfit the female star of an action-adventure film.
The result is a series of garments with what Atwood calls a “medieval feel,” such as a lamb-suede overdress paired with leggings and boots — not to mention a full suit of armor. The designer says, “The costumes and the materials I chose were dictated by who Snow White was in the story. She wasn't sitting on a throne or dancing in a cute little house with dwarves; she was fighting her own fight. To make that work visually, I had to take something that was feminine by today's standards and make it suitable for an enabled woman who's ready to save her own life.”
Mirror Mirror is likely to be the most family-friendly, feel-good attraction of these three offerings, yet its visual effects are decidedly avant-garde, largely because of the vivid sensibilities of director Tarsem Singh, production designer Tom Foden and the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka.
This Snow White (Lily Collins) radiates all the smooth-skinned ethereality mainstream moviegoers have come to expect. As producer Bernie Goldmann explains it, “She has that quality that makes everyone love her — a shine that comes not only from the outside but from the inside as well.” At first, the princess seems as delicate a flower as the blooms appliquéd on her ball gown, but when she makes her first foray into the forest, her departure from her shrinking-violet persona is swift: The hair comes down, the dress is replaced by practical black pants and a tunic, and it turns out Snow White isn't half-bad with a blade.
By the time she's back in her castle, wearing another voluminous costume, it doesn't matter, because (spoiler alert — though not really) she's there as a self-proclaimed “leader” who has vanquished an evil queen, saved a town from financial ruin, broken a couple of spells and sealed the deal with her guy. Her actions are right in line with the primary goal of the movie's art direction, says Goldmann: “We wanted to define a world that was worth fighting for, emotionally available, someplace people want to be.”
The tale of Snow White is ancient, but we keep returning to it because it satisfies the human craving for epic sagas: good versus evil, true love, valiant struggles and so forth. Still, the days when the saccharine, Technicolor incarnation of the heroine satisfied more than nostalgic yearnings are done. If we're going to watch this story unfold again and again, its princess needs an edge. How that's delivered varies from artist to artist, as this latest round of adaptations proves.
Whether Snow White is throwing down on a battlefield, getting freaky in a Bollywood-style musical number or showing her punk-rock swagger with black lipstick, we need action. Garcia and the creators of these two movies try to give us the savvy, self-assured young woman we want, not a wet noodle lying around in a glass coffin, waiting for some dude in tights to kiss her.
“Snow White: The Complete Works on Paper” is at Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., through April 14. kohngallery.com. Mirror Mirror opens March 30. Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1.