Art With a Brutal Heart

DISNEY ANIMATION is often criticized for masking cynical corporate values—Wall-E’s profound challenge to over-consumption was accompanied by the selling of toys and games; the company claims to be pro-feminist but only tweaks the fairytale princess archetype with heroines who express their “strength” by showing that they can fight like a man.

Yet there’s still some magic in the Disneymagination—Fantasia, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King, despite their political alarm bells (racism and homophobia are challenged and reinforced, the average of which can only compute to ambivalence), are examples of visual resplendence, a sense of humor, and an invitation to hope. The best parts of the Disney worldview look like the eschatological images in a Martin Luther King Jr. speech; the worst merely bolster a culture of privilege and exclusion.

The most Disney-like current film is Mirror, Mirror, a retelling of the Snow White story, directed by the fantastic visual stylist Tarsem Singh. It features Julia Roberts in a wickedly entertaining turn as the queen, with a witty script, gorgeous set and costume design, and some bawdy fun. But the portrayal of Snow White as a “liberated” young woman whose liberation depends on her behaving like a Bruce Willis action character produces a paradox: Any of the images from this film could be exhibited in an art gallery—so elegantly composed and imaginative are they—but the ethical heart of the film isn’t artful at all.

Mirror, Mirror’s climax is disturbing: Snow White goads the evil queen into eating her own poisoned apple, shattering the mirror (in which—an interesting idea, this—the queen’s wiser self resides), killing the queen, and making the world safe for a celebratory dance. In short, a family film about an innocent girl finding true love climaxes by turning the heroine into Kevin Spacey’s character in Seven, a serial killer who murders people to teach them a lesson. When the queen prepares to take her own life at Snow White’s behest, it’s played for laughs and cheers, for applause, for closure. The audience is sent away with happy memories of gruesome pseudo-murder, wrapped so prettily in candy floss that we may not notice that the sugar-coated medicine we’re drinking is actually killing us. When it comes to life, love, and death, there are better stories to be told.

On that note, two better stories worth recommending this month are the new special editions of A Night to Remember, an emotionally revealing version of the Titanic tragedy, and The Last Temptation of Christ—which presents a Jesus with something to say to the sacred-secular/human-divine paradox. And neither has any of the cynicism of Mirror, Mirror. Highly recommended.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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