Of all the ways American pop culture defines itself in the early part of the 21st century, myths -- larger than life, older than time -- supersede them all. World-creation (usually based on the rules of a world someone previously created) is what we consume, as one glance at the "Lord of the Rings"-ish enthusiasm for HBO's just-launched second season of "Game of Thrones" demonstrates.
No world is getting (re)created these days more than the one shaped by the Brothers Grimm. And yet it's these myths we seem to want least.
This was supposed to be the era of the fairy-tale movie. Big studios threw big money at big stars to take us to the land of happily ever after. In part, this was -- let's be honest -- because the source material came cheap. But it was also happening for all sorts of cultural reasons, we were told, a metaphor for evil and escape in a post-9/11 world, children's folklore with a Christopher Nolan spin.
Yet like Cinderella's slippers on the other women, none of them have quite fit. In fact, fairy-tale movies so far have been dismal commercial and creative affairs. This past weekend's "Mirror Mirror," starring Lily Collins as the put-upon princess Snow White, was the latest such disappointment -- a paltry $19-million opening, just a 53% favorable rating on Movie Review Intelligence. And though you can toss out specific reasons for its failure (mistimed marketing, the diminishing appeal of Julia Roberts), it's starting to feel like something larger is going on here.
Tarsem Singh's decision to spin a fairy tale into a bouncy, punny, girl-empowerment story has fared no better than the bending of the form to other genres, not to the earnest teen romance ("Beastly") nor the gory period thriller ("Red Riding Hood"), both of which struck out with critics and audiences as well. Over the river and through the woods, to the house of flopdom we go.
This is all in pointed contrast to other mythic cinematic offerings -- the kind, such as "Harry Potter" or "The Hunger Games," that take stories to the realm of the fantastic without the strictures and expectations of a direct fairy-tale adaptation. It's also in contrast to television, where the fantasy procedural “Grimm” and the fairy-tale adventure "Once Upon a Time" have both enjoyed at least modest success, suggesting that if you are indeed going to try to put your mark on the Brothers Grimm, perhaps you need more than 100 minutes to do it well.
There's still time for others to reverse the tide: Universal Pictures has been parceling out pieces of this June's "Snow White and the Huntsman," for example, hoping that the straight-faced seriousness of an action movie will be the fairy-tale formula that finally catches on. Maybe it will. Or maybe we'd rather look to new, "Games of Thrones"-like horizons instead of continuing to gaze in the mirror.
Photo: Lily Collins as Snow White, surrounded by dwarfs, in "Mirror Mirror." Credit: Relativity Media