REVIEW: Snow White and the Huntsman

There comes a moment late in the film Snow White and the Huntsman, as Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is showing some actual passion in attempting to rally the last free troops in her kingdom to march against the evil queen (Charlize Theron) who murdered her father and usurped his throne.  I was starting to get interested in spite of myself.  After having been a fairly passive presence during the first three quarters of the film, Stewart finally let loose with some assertiveness, and the result was interesting.  “Why couldn’t she have shown a tenth this much energy during any other part of the film?” I muttered to myself.

Then came the defining moment of the monologue.  “Who will be my brother?” asks Snow White.  Only she says it a little too emphatically.  And the crowd around her is a little too quick and unified in their response.  And the comment itself was a little too on-the-nose.  Shakespeare already wrote the definitive speech of this type, and that sentence was simply too close to it.  So much so, in fact, that immediately the words popped into my mind:  “Saint Kristen’s Day speech.”

I couldn’t help it.  I laughed.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are quite a few merits to be found in Snow White and the Huntsman.  The film is well-shot and well-animated, at times gorgeous.  The costumes are rich and lush.  Most of the actors give performances of good to excellent quality, especially Charlize Theron in an almost perfectly-judged scenery-chewing turn as the villain.  But in the end, it’s not enough.  What we have here is a film that never really seems to get a handle on its reason for existing.  It wants to break away from the classic versions of “Snow White” that we all remember, but never totally manages to do so.  Add in the mis-casting of Kristen Stewart as the titular princess, which is (I think) the real reason the film never manages to coalesce, and we get an assembly of some intriguing parts into a disappointing less-than-whole.

The story is set up by an overly-long prologue.  Once there was a queen who pricked her finger on the thorns of a rose blooming in the dead of winter.  This causes her to wish for a daughter, and her wish is granted when a little girl arrives.  Alas, the queen dies when Snow White is but a small child.  The grief-stricken king is lured into a battle with an army of magically-animated soldiers, and upon defeating them finds a captive woman with whom he immediately falls in love.  “Immediately” isn’t an exaggeration, either.  They are married the next day.  Unbelievably, no one breathes so much as a word about how perhaps a king who had just been in mourning for his wife shouldn’t be remarried so quickly.  Even Snow White seems accepting of her mother being replaced with no warning.

The quick remarriage leads to a bigger problem, however.  It turns out that the cart in which the woman had been locked was really more of a Trojan horse.  She was the sorceress who had created the army, and she has designs on the kingdom – which she fulfills by stabbing her new husband to death in his bed on their wedding night.  Then she summons her army into the king’s castle, captures it, and locks Snow White in one of the towers.  The new queen hangs her mirror on the wall and asks it the old familiar question.  Having received assurances on her relative fairness status, she then proceeds to rule for the next fifteen years, periodically sucking the loveliness from comely young maidens to maintain her youth and beauty.

Up to now, the film’s basic story has followed the classic fairytale with a few divergences, most of them minor.  Here come several twists in a row, though, so brace yourselves.  While Snow White has been locked upstairs in the tower, presumably being starved and mistreated (and perved on, if one unsettling line of dialogue is to be taken at face value), she has come of age and is now the fairest of them all.  Who knew imprisonment and poor hygiene was so good for beauty?  And who knew that you had to wait until you came of age before you could be the fairest of them all?  I’ve read many fairytales, but I’ve never heard of such a legalistic requirement – was Mirror, Mirror on the Wall afraid of being charged with something statutory?  That’s not even mentioning that a strict interpretation of what we see and what we are told would mean that “of age” equals twenty-one, in a culture where most young women would already have been married and had children by that point.

Set all that aside, though.  In the classic fairytale, Snow White is sent away from the castle immediately upon the Queen learning of her surpassing beauty, with the Huntsman as her escort and under strict instructions to kill her.  Here, Snow White escapes her prison (hopefully muttering as she does so that the bird would have been perfectly welcome to show her that way out years ago).  The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) comes in only after Snow White has already escaped into the Dark Forest; he is sent in after her with instructions to bring her back alive to the Queen.  That’s because, in this universe, Snow White’s heart is the one thing that can bring salvation to the Queen, in the form of immortality and eternal beauty.  This is a dark, gruesome turn that could have been at the center of a much more worthy film.  Gosh, it’s a good thing that the usurper Ravenna hadn’t had Snow White killed fifteen years ago to cement her claim to the throne.  I can promise you it’s the first move I would have made had I been in her position.

Since I’m spent the past few paragraphs happily picking nits, let me turn for a few moments to a discussion of the virtues of Snow White and the Huntsman.  It is set, as so many fantasy films are, in that “medieval time” that probably doesn’t bear any real resemblance to any medieval time in any country.  The creative team uses that layer of unreality to their advantage, however.  This is a film that really looks like it could be a fairytale.  Color drips off the screen from a world filled with magic.  One scene where Snow White walks through a fairy wood and encounters a complete bestiary of the world, with both magical and natural creatures, stands out as my particular favorite.  Like all fairytale worlds, this one has a dark side as well, which is manifested in a number of ways.  The Dark Forest and the Evil Queen are the most obvious, but there are quieter horrors as well.  When Snow White and the Huntsman arrive at one village, they find it full of women who have all mutilated themselves to escape having their beauty taken by the queen.  It’s a great concept that could have been taken even farther to even more awful effect.

All the characters are thinly written, but most of them are well-played.  I’m particularly fond of the band of dwarves we meet midway through the film.  These aren’t Disney dwarves; they owe a greater debt to Tolkien, though I can’t believe I just said that.  They are creatures of honor with actual fighting skills.  While they may have one-note personalities, they’re not so easily summed up by name.  (Also, there are eight of them, not seven.  I’ll leave you to figure out what happens.)  And they’re so delightfully low, in contrast to the more traditional elevated figures around them.  I found their presence refreshing.

Charlize Theron is the particular standout in the cast.  What works about this film, works because of her:  the conviction she brings to her character, the magnificently overwrought line readings and dramatic gestures, and yes, that particular radiant beauty that has always been hers.  (When she wasn’t destroying it to win awards, that is.)  Here at last is a wicked queen that truly could deserve the title “fairest of them all.”  She dominates the screen every single time she is on it.  She overplays every line enough to make her character seem powerful, but not enough to skate over the line into ridiculousness.  In a film that should have been packed with larger-than-life characters, she gives us a small taste of what the movie could have been.

But it wasn’t. And I’m inclined to lay a large portion of the blame on whoever cast Kristen Stewart.  It’s not so much that she gives a poor performance as it is that she is stunningly miscast.  In a battle for the title of fairest of them all, a 36-year-old Theron would and should win in a landslide over a 22-year-old Stewart.  Stewart is not ugly by any means, but she looks awkward and angular next to the still-stunning Theron, who not only has a classical beauty but who pulls off the costumes better than her younger counterpart.  What’s worse, Stewart never gives Snow White the power and presence necessary to make her Ravenna’s equal; she spends most of the film in a very passive performance that feels like she was trying too hard to be something she naturally isn’t.  It’s a pity that Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t available for this role.  She has the same sort of ethereal good looks as Theron (no buck teeth or angles on either of them), and she has already proven she can engage an audience with a quiet power in a way Stewart likely will never be able to match.

Moreover, she has very little chemistry with Chris Hemsworth.  He’s a good casting choice for the Huntsman, even if he seems a bit lost in the role from time to time.  (And his casting saved us from some truly inappropriate choices.  Apparently Johnny Depp was offered that role.)  But Hemsworth is only at his best when he is sharing the screen with an actor who understands how to overplay a role and can goad him into a matching performance – or alternatively, when he is onscreen by himself and has a chance to let his natural charisma breathe.  Neither happens often enough to help him here, because he’s onscreen far too much with terminal underplayer Stewart.  Again, if he had been matched up with Lawrence like his younger brother Liam recently was in The Hunger Games, we could have had something special on our hands.

But though Kristen Stewart is the big problem here, there are others that have nothing to do with her.  The character of William is based on the prince from the fairytale, but there wasn’t really a character to build on.  So poor Sam Claflin gets saddled with having to bring off a role that has behavioral clichés instead of backstory.  Clichés are the order of the day when it comes to the script as well.  During their time in the Dark Forest, with no proximate provocation for his actions, the Huntsman teaches Snow White a basic defense move.  I wonder if that will crop up later?  Nah.  It certainly shouldn’t make a difference, as it’s not used till the climactic assault on the castle, and Snow White really shouldn’t have survived long enough to use it.

If you want to know the ultimate sign of a poorly-constructed screenplay, though, here it is:  the heroes couldn’t win without the villains.  Three times, the villains tell the heroes things they shouldn’t need to say, and they always end off the worse for it.  First, Ravenna’s brother Finn (Sam Spruell) tells the Huntsman that the queen can’t fulfill her promise.  Had he simply lied, Snow White would have been back at the castle and dead within a day.  Second, Finn again makes a mistake with the Huntsman by telling him how his wife died.  This leads directly to Finn’s death, depriving the queen of her most trusted counselor.

Third, and worst of all, the queen – in trying to take Snow White’s heart during the classic “poisoned apple” scene – actually tells Snow White what she’s after, and therefore, how to beat her.  The foolishness of this move cannot be overstated.  Had the queen kept mum, one of two things would almost certainly have happened.  The queen might have killed Snow White and taken her prize straightaway.  Assuming Snow White survived, however, her protectors would have assumed she was important enough to keep away from the queen.  This would have deprived Snow White of the opportunity to rid the land of Ravenna’s menace once and for all.  Granted, Ravenna wouldn’t have been able to secure ultimate victory, either, at least not immediately.  But Snow White would not have dared to give her Saint Kristen’s Day speech and demand an assault on the castle if she hadn’t known the conditions under which she could achieve victory.

So, should you see Snow White and the Huntsman?  If you like pretty films, I doubt you’ll find too many this year that will look better.  If Charlize Theron as a wicked queen sounds like your idea of a god time, this is a must-see.  Everyone else should feel comfortable giving it a miss, or waiting for it to come out at Redbox.

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