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'Huntsman' And 'Tale Of Tales' Put A Modern Spin On Classic Fairy Tales


This is FRESH AIR. Two films opening this week are based on classic fairytales. The first film is "The Huntsman: Winter’s War," a sequel to the 2012 movie "Snow White And The Huntsman." The sequel stars Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron. The second fairytale film this week in limited release is "Tale Of Tales," an adaptation of a group of 17th century Italian folk stories. Film critic David Edelstein reviews both movies.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Mirror mirror on the wall, what’s the dumbest fairytale movie of all? Well, one candidate is "The Huntsman: Winter’s War," a sequel no one wanted to "Snow White And The Huntsman," that’s like a mush of "Game Of Thrones" and Disney’s "Frozen" crammed with over-familiar computer-generated effects. Actually, it’s a sequel and a prequel. The long first chapter takes place before "Snow White And The Huntsman." And then the film jumps ahead to after Snow White has defeated Charlize Theron’s evil Queen Ravenna in battle.

It turns out that Ravenna has a sister, Freya, played by Emily Blunt, who, in the prequel part of the new film, loses a child and lover under horrific circumstances. She transforms into an Ice Queen with an ice castle in an iced-over landscape and an army trained to make war, not love. Literally, her fighters are forbidden to love because love, she declares, is a cruel illusion. This puts a damper on the smoldering passion of her best soldiers, Chris Hemsworth’s Eric the Huntsman and Jessica Chastain’s Sara.

I’d say Chastain has outgrown bland-ingenue roles like Sara, except when she was young, she’d never played them. And watching a resurrected Charlize Theron sneer and zap Chastain and rail against love, I thought, how can grown-ups not be embarrassed to say these lines? Yeah, we get it - love reigns supreme. The only reason to see "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is Emily Blunt, who gives the nearest thing I’ve seen in an American film to a kabuki performance - almost perfectly still, yet conveying with a tilt of her head the roiling emotions within.

The Italian-made "Tale Of Tales" is in English, but its visual language feels strange and bracingly unfamiliar. It has a rough, primordial magic. The film is an adaptation by director Matteo Garrone of three stories by Giambattista Basile, who, before his death in 1632 published moralistic tales of witches and ogres and imperiled princesses. Garrone opens with the plight of a king and queen, played by John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, who can’t conceive a child. A gangly, cadaverous necromancer played by Franco Pistoni offers a solution.


FRANCO PISTONI: (As Necromancer) You want a child? Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.

SALMA HAYEK: (As Queen of Longtrellis) I'm prepared to die to die in order to feel life grow inside me.

PISTONI: (As Necromancer) We are speaking of possibility, not certainty. Are you willing to accept the risk?

HAYEK: (As Queen of Longtrellis) What must we do?

PISTONI: (As Necromancer) Hunt down a sea monster, cut out its heart and have it cooked by a virgin. But she must be alone. When your majesty eats the heart, you will become pregnant instantly.

EDELSTEIN: The royal couple does what the necromancer asks, and what follows - the monster sleeping on the sea-bed, the giant pulsing heart, the instantaneous pregnancies of the queen and the virgin, a servant girl - is ghastly yet magnificent with a mythic power. The story resumes years later, when the boys from the queen and servant girl turn out to have the same pale skin and snowy-white hair and form a bond that drives the queen to separate them at any cost.

The other tales in "Tale Of Tales" - both with kings - involve the skin of something or someone. A ruler played by Toby Jones raises a flea until it’s human-sized, flays it after its death and offers his daughter’s hand to the man who guesses the origin of the pelt. Alas, that man is an ogre, who knows skins because he hunts animals and people, much to the princess’s horror. In the third story, a randy monarch played by Vincent Cassel hears the gorgeous singing voice of an old peasant woman who lives with her sister and thinking she’s young, woos her through the door. What comes next and finally, devastating - rejection, magical rejuvenation and then a tragic grisly self-mutilation.

"Tale Of Tales" is patchy and dissonant, and Garrone makes the stories harsher and more unsettling than the originals. But I don’t think his cruelty is gratuitous. As his 2008 film "Gomorrah" suggests, he’s by temperament a tragic ironist. And he understands the uses of classic fairytales, why they were conceived and passed on, before Hollywood came along and neutered them. They were and are a way of exploring the limits of physical desire, of going metaphorically and literally under the skin.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker salutes the music and legacy of Prince, who died yesterday at age 57. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.