My first thought, upon hearing of this movie, was “Kristen Stewart as the ‘fairest of them all’? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But a series of remarkably intriguing trailers – sporting some spectacular effects and action – were enough to convince me that it might be worth seeing. Besides, I’m a sucker for huge swords-and-horses epics…particularly when a few scary-looking beasties get thrown in.
The verdict? Mixed.
The plot of “Snow White and the Huntsman” isn’t exactly obscure: evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) wants to kill beautiful princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) to obtain eternal youth. Snow promptly flees to the Dark Forest, where she meets the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and a band of surly dwarves. Large-scale battles result.
So what sets “Snow White and the Huntsman” apart? The answer is surprisingly multifaceted.
For starters, this is a gorgeous film. I don’t mean that in the “Avatar” or “Avengers” sense – if all its digital effects were set aside, “Snow White and the Huntsman” would remain a beautifully rendered cinematic vision. Everything – from shot composition to art design – is spellbinding. I found myself frequently thinking that any still image from this movie could be enlarged and framed like a painting…it’s that good. With the addition of some appropriate, unobtrusive computer graphics, it becomes simply exquisite.
I didn’t expect there to be any heavy worldview elements in this movie. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover some interesting undercurrents. Most notably, Snow’s quest is cast in far more messianic terms than in the source material.
At the beginning of the film, Snow recites the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety – a very surprising touch. Not only is this highly anachronistic (since when do fantasy worlds refer explicitly to the real-world Bible?) it doesn’t seem to “fit” at first. Further context, however, sheds light on this inclusion. In a pivotal scene, Snow encounters the glorious White Hart – described reverently as “He” by the dwarves. As she touches the mythical creature, a dwarf whispers breathlessly “She is the one!” The scene is even shot in such a way that Snow appears to be standing on water.
In any other fantasy film, I’d write this off as stereotypical “SHE IS THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROPHECY!” posturing. But the film takes this a step further: whereas in the source material “true love’s kiss” is the force that resurrects Snow, in “Snow White and the Huntsman” not a single mention is made of “true love’s” supposedly miraculous power. (Ironically, Snow is actually betrayed by a kiss at one point.) Though it’s never explicitly stated, there’s a very real sense that Snow is acting out a much larger, cosmic plan of sorts…that this is a struggle for the ultimate victory of good, not just a squabble over magical Botox.
(Side note for any serious theology buffs: early on in the movie, a much younger Snow helps heal a bird with a broken wing. The “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” a Gnostic text purporting to describe the childhood of Christ, contains a story in which Jesus shapes birds from clay and then commands them to fly, bringing them to life. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t an intentional inclusion, but if so…it’s a very clever touch.)
All that being said, this semi-messianic theme remains underdeveloped throughout the third act – and this highlights perhaps the most unfortunate problem with “Snow White and the Huntsman”: obvious meddling by studio executives. In their efforts to make a “tentpole” movie that would appeal to all audiences, the top brass evidently succeeded in deleting anything contentious or innovative. The end product, naturally, is rather bland.
The seeds of a really, really good movie are here. The first half-hour is spellbinding, and I’d be surprised if the movie didn’t scoop up a few awards for its gorgeous cinematography throughout. What drags it down is an abysmal script…one that consistently refuses to go in any interesting directions. The evil queen comes closest to being a nuanced character, but there’s no follow-through. In her final confrontation with the queen, Snow declares “You can’t have my heart.” (No, really? I had no idea!) An awkward pause follows, and I hoped there would be some unique follow-up…some forgiveness proffered or redemption foreshadowed. But alas, such was not to be.
(Note to screenwriters: throwing in a tragic Sympathy Scene to try to “humanize” your villain is a cheap move. If “The Silence of the Lambs” featured a flashback of Hannibal Lecter being bullied in high school, would that have improved the movie? There are better ways to create a multidimensional antagonist.)
This, in turn, hamstrings the very talented actors on display. Charlize Theron conjures up cold menace as the queen, but the script requires her to do lots of deranged screaming…which ends up sounding ludicrous. Kristen Stewart comes off as a bit of a prig, and Chris Hemsworth is obviously still stuck in “Thor” mode.
None of this is to say that “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a “bad” movie. It’s not – in fact, when stacked up against “Clash of the Titans,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and others, it’s pretty good. It reminded me a lot of the Narnia films (in a good way)…there’s much more C.S. Lewis than Tim Burton here. As entertainment, I enjoyed it…though I can’t help wondering how much better it could have been.
For all the hype over the “dark” tone of this film, it’s really pretty tame in the content department. There are a few mild sexual elements, and frequent outbreaks of mostly-bloodless violence, but the PG-13 rating is never pushed. (Given the source material, I expected some serious boundary-pushing on all levels…but this doesn’t materialize).
Is it worth watching?
If not in theaters, owners of Blu-ray players need to see this one at some point…the visuals and cinematography are breathtaking. Fans of fantasy action epics could do much worse, and there is some interesting food for thought here. In the end, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a good film – but one that falls short of greatness by a maddeningly slim margin.
A gorgeously rendered, though tragically substance-less, fantasy epic.