“Based on the material they had to work with, in that context, that’s probably the best that story could be told.” That quote, spoken by my wife as we walked out of Snow White and the Huntsman, is precisely the kind of faint praise this film will likely be damned with. This material likely couldn’t be adapted any better than it is in this souped-up muscle car version of the time-tested fairy tale about evil queens and poison apples, fair princesses and goofy dwarves. And yet this is one of those stories that no manner of aesthetic embellishment can disguise its bland simplicity. Beyond its epic battles, elaborate effects sequences, and long, drawn-out scenes of talking and walking, this is still a story about a jealous queen, a bland princess, and the many men who set out to protect them.
Beyond its epic battles, elaborate effects sequences, and long, drawn-out scenes of talking and walking, this is still a story about a jealous queen, a bland princess, and the many men who set out to protect them.
It would seem all too easy to assume that the stifling concept of Snow White combined with Kristen Stewart’s mere presence suggests that this film is just a quasi spinoff of the Twilight series. On its face, the comparison is unfair; Snow White and the Huntsman, gothic and overwrought but occasionally haunting and frequently beautiful, doesn’t even come close to wading in the execrable terrain of Stephenie Meyer’s subjugating series. But as the film plods along, the similarity between the actions – or lack thereof – is eerie. Here we have the story of a young woman who spends most of the time standing on the sidelines, watching as more “capable” males fight to protect her. Sometimes she writhes in pain, but mostly she just stands silent, brooding and/or staring in awe while others take action.
Make no mistake, the film is nowhere near as inflammatory in its female crippling as Twilight, and there are twists in both gender stereotypes and conventional story expectations that gradually allow the titular heroine to rise to prominence. But in a film that sells itself on its gritty reimagining of a conventional tale, a higher standard should be set for subverting the expectations of character dynamics. The movie should make a statement with its content, not just its visuals.
A familiar prologue sets the stage for what’s to come – a queen wishes for a daughter with “skin white as snow, hair black as ebony.” She gets her wish, but with a price – the queen dies in childbirth, leaving her new daughter to the care of the distraught king. He eventually takes a new wife, in a decision that ranks with the worst of all-time epic fails. The new queen (played with glorious scenery-chewing venom by Charlize Theron) possesses powers that are fueled by her ingrained vanity. She is driven not merely by toppling rulers and assuming their power, but by procuring eternal youth. The queen’s thirst for power is born out of apparent insecurity, not blind vitriol.
Nevertheless, she ravages the land of all physical beauty and emotional hope, and enslaves the angelic princess, Snow White, in a dungeon. After years of imprisonment, an older Snow White (Stewart) escapes from her prison, leaving the jealous queen to hire a drunken huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track down and kill the fair princess. From here, some welcome story licenses are taken, though the huntsman still swiftly falls in love with Snow White, who is oft-threatened with deathly peril, and whose survival becomes more the film’s object than subject. And yes, there are dwarves – played by some of the best British character actors in the business (Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Bob Hoskins, among others), their heads digitally plunked atop more dwarf-like bodies as they cavort about.
All of this is carried off with the utmost professionalism, seamless visually and clever enough on the page. Rupert Sanders, an apparent first-time feature filmmaker for whom literally no other credits exist on IMDb, directs Snow White and the Huntsman with remarkable assuredness. His use of de-saturated film stock and Malickian nature imagery contrasts well with the bombast of the film’s visual effects (which, for the record, are uniformly excellent). Some of the quieter thematic moments can likely be attributed to the screenplay contributions of Hossein Amini (Drive). The story’s darker elements are likely truer to the fairy tale’s Brothers Grimm origins.
Acting is strong across the board, though Stewart continues to be a victim of her own making. Her emo acting style became its own cliché in the Twilight films, and apart from a half-assed Euro accent, there isn’t much variation from that mold here.
Acting is strong across the board, though Stewart continues to be a victim of her own making. Her emo acting style became its own cliché in the Twilight films, and apart from a half-assed Euro accent, there isn’t much variation from that mold here. Hemsworth gives another in a string of charismatic performances, his beefcake appearance belying his impressive range. Theron digs in to the pure, teeth-gnashing evil of The Queen, and it’s unfortunate when she is largely forgotten during the languid second act, which consists primarily of walking through the Dark Forest.
All of these elements coalesce in a relatively satisfying fashion, and yet the attempt to convert a short fairy tale into a feature-length epic stretches the narrative to an extended lull, exposing the story’s innate thinness. The filmmakers live for the effects-laden action, but that doesn’t hit its stride until the final half hour of this 127-minute film. By extension, this would-be female empowerment narrative is suppressed even longer, not reaching its apex until the last 15 minutes. Perhaps this is, as my wife posited, the best we can get – a solid, if minor, subversion of the classic fairy tale, mounted on a handsomely epic scale. But it’s not unfair to ask for – and expect – more.
[notification type=”star”]54/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Snow White and the Huntsman is an effects-laden epic version of the classic fairy tale, mounted as well as it possibly could be, but still lacking enough meat to fully engage us.[/notification]