[1 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Fairytales have always been dark. It was Disney and their ilk that lightened up the otherwise threatening cautionary narratives filled with dangers, fears, and symbolic warnings. Today, studios can be counted on to treat kids like veal, vacating anything remotely edgy or uneasy for the sake of a saccharine and the safe. So it is within this morass of middling missed opportunities that something like Snow White and the Huntsman comes along. Peeled from the same inspirations that begat the amazingly awful Twilight series (and the equally horrid Big Bad Wolf-sex uptick, Red Riding Hood), we get the story standards, but little of the classic beats. Instead, our heroine is a grrrl power princess who wants to regain her throne, overthrow the Evil Witch, and find someone to love - either her boyhood crush, or the title drunkard charged with finding her…and killing her.
You see, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) more or less stole the kingdom from Snow White (Kristen Stewart) when she married the child’s father and then killed him on their wedding night. Able to maintain her youthful beauty via black magic and soul sucking sacrifices, she is aware that the only thing that can defeat her is “one who is pure of heart” and is “the fairest in the land.” That happens to be Snow, so Ravenna locks her in the tall tower of the castle. When she escapes, she finds a fool in the form of an inebriated adventurer (Chris Hemsworth) who has traversed the haunted Black Forest and lived to tell. Angry and bitter over the death of his wife, he reluctantly agrees to do the job.
When he eventually fails, Ravenna sends her doting brother (Sam Spruell) to lead a new charge. Snow eventually teams up with the Huntsman, hoping to find the armies of her father’s friend, Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and his son - her early in life love - William (Sam Claflin). Along the way, they meet up with a tribe of women who have purposefully scarred themselves, a easily swayed bridge troll, and a collective of dwarves (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson). They all vow to stop Ravenna and her royal reign of terror.
As the second of two treatments of this material to come out in 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman has its work cut out for it. Audiences have already been treated to the Tarsem helmed, humor-filled Mirror, Mirror, and fortunately, this film takes the title in a whole new direction. Not a better direction, mind you, but a solidly unique perspective. Snow is not some washed out wimp completely dominated by everyone in her life. Instead, as embodied with pale passivity by Ms. Stewart, she’s a warrior in waiting, a joyless Joan of Plot Arc that must go from victim to victory in the span of two tiring hours. In essence, it’s a road film, albeit one where our travelers come across ancillary elements that really don’t payoff in the end.
Take the scarred women, for one. They make it very clear that their act of self-mutilation was determined by the Queen’s love of beauty. But then, we see her wicked Majesty using her evil enchantment on anyone and everyone when things get dicey. Similarly, the story suggests that once Snow’s away from the castle, the rogue royal can’t touch her. Yet toward the very end, when the Third Act requires a dilemma, Ravenna shows up where Snow is and puts on the old poison apple carrying croon disguise. If she could do this all along, why wait until now? And if she couldn’t why can she? There are lots of issues with the Snow White and the Huntsman script, fiddles that find their way into the main plot pool where they end up sinking like a stone.
Still, it’s a striking journey into nothingness. Director Rupert Sanders, who got his start in commercials, brings a high level of visual skill to the sometimes compelling mess. The opening explanation, including our first look at Ravenna’s mysterious Black Army, is impressive, and there’s even a cheesy sequence where fairies ride cute as a button wild life in an enchanted forest. Yet for all his flair, Sanders has issues with character and narrative. Theron masticates through the scenery so efficiently that she threatens to bring down all the practical backdrops while Hemsworth does his best brogued brute. All the known names essaying the technically amazing dwarves do fine work - it’s just a shame we have to wait for nearly two-thirds of the film to be over before they arrive.
Of course, all eyes will be on Stewart as she attempts to escape the constant glare of her Bella Swan alter ego. She’s been good elsewhere (Adventureland), but here, she’s a symbolic cipher. All the elements Show supposed represents - goodness, purity, innocence, power - are nowhere in her performance. Instead, the script has to constantly remind us of these properties less we look at Ms. Stewart and see that she really offers none of these. Even in the end, when forced to deliver one of those “For God and Glory” speeches to rally the troops, she seems trapped in the expectations of her audience. When a film can find her one note, she’s a knockout. In Snow White and the Huntsman, she’s barely there.
Yet there is an overriding richness to the film that can’t be denied. Unlike Mirror, Mirror which saw Tarsem trip around the farce to deliver his stunning images, Snow White and the Huntsman tries for something similar and serious - and almost makes it. Indeed, had more care been given to the story (or, better yet, had the studios had more faith in Evan Dougherty’s screenplay and not handed it over to a pair of high priced fiddlers), had Sanders stayed strictly within a darker, more sinister vision, we’d have something special. Instead, the entire movie feels like a first lesson in a little girl’s guide to growing up. Indeed, all the blood and sex and death imagery should create a symbolic ride into adulthood. As it stands, Snow White and the Huntsman is a bold, often bland statement.