Snow White and the Huntsman can’t help but feel like it misses the mark. Its intentions are clear, its objectives very firmly set. It’s an attempt to “reclaim” the age old fairytale for a more modern audience, to revisit all the tropes and the plot devices from the story we all know and rework them so that they speak to today. The result is a massive misfire, as the attempt to craft a feminist fable from the story of Snow White makes the same fatal misstep as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: just because you put a sword in the hand of your leading female, and just because she wears a suit of armour, does not immediately reinvent her as a feminist icon.
Of course, it would be hard to explore the original Snow White story without jumping into a debate about gender roles. A pretty virginal princess and a bitter old crone locked in a battle about who happens to be prettier – the eponymous heroine requiring the assistance of several men in order to claim her birthright. (If, depending on the version, she does at all.) Naturally, such stories feel a little out of place these days. The notion of putting a pretty princess in a transparent glass case waiting to be claimed like some item in the lost and found simply doesn’t cut it in the twenty-first century.
So enter Snow White. As played by Kristen Stewart, she’s clearly intended to be a more dynamic leading character than any of her predecessors. She leads an army to reclaim her throne, she learns how to wield a dagger, she makes a cunning escape from the clutches of her evil stepmother. Unfortunately, most of the changes seem cosmetic at best. She carries a sword. She wears pants. She gives an obligatory (if somewhat less than inspiring) speech to her would-be army on the eve of battle, ending in fist-pumping for all. Surely this is a bad-ass female protagonist for the new millennium, boldly pulling the story into a new age?
Not at all, sadly. Snow White is still pretty much defined by her victimhood. She’s captured by her stepmother during a palace coup as a girl, and spends several years as a prisoner. Don’t worry – we’ll come back to the movie’s somewhat fractured internal logic momentarily. Anyway, she manages to escape not through any skill, but by the sheer idiocy of her captor’s moron brother. Once she’s out, however, she quickly finds a burly man to hang on to, as she pleads with the Huntsman to shepherd her to the castle of her father’s alley. “If you leave me, I’ll die,” she begs, rather shamelessly.
With the big burly man to protect her, she sets off on her quest to find another big burly man with a ready-made army of big burly men to go re-take her castle. She doesn’t recruit the army herself, nor does she actually do anything to inspire her people to rise up – nor to prove she’s the rightful ruler. She’s ridiculously passive as a central character. When she does prove useful, during a troll attack, it’s precisely because she doesn’t act. (I’m not quite sure why that worked, but it is rather damning that the lead character is at her most useful doing absolutely nothing.) Even when the kingdom seems to come back to life in her presence, it’s not because of anything she does – she just happens to passively exude this aura that heals people, for some reason. And that’s before we get into the “ends up almost dead waiting for a man to kiss her”bit.
If you’re going to boast about reinventing Snow White as a heroine of her own tale, you have to do more than just put a blade in her hand and have the other characters acknowledge her as the rightful queen. Have her prove it somehow. Show us that she’s smart, or strong, or powerful, or worthy of the love and respect of her people. Instead, as played rather lifelessly by Kristen Stewart, she seems almost like a piece of lifeless scenery.
This problem is compounded by the evil queen, as played by Charlize Theron. Theron is much stronger than Stewart, and has considerable screen presence. She’s very clearly set up as a parody of the straw feminist – the man-hating woman who claims to be empowered while still powerless. The queen has clearly had a bit of a rough time with men, and so seems to hold a bit of a prejudice, murdering her innocent husband on the wedding night. If the symbolism isn’t obvious enough, she is mounting him, and she penetrates him with a (frankly unnecessary) dagger. However, this hatred of men and believe in her own superiority is undermined – she’s shown to shallow, fragile and vain. For all she claims to despise men, she still aspires to be attractive to them; she’s still insecure about her looks. For all her assertions about her unquestioned authority, she seems to depend a lot on the men around her.
She’s basically a bad stereotype. This would work if the movie were able to contrast the Queen with Snow White, to contrast the shallow misandry of the Queen with the actual feminism of Snow White. That seems to be the intent of the script, after all. “We are the same,” the Queen tells Snow White. Snow White replies, “I’m everything you’re not.” It might carry a bit more weight if Snow White was anything at all, save a burden on those around her. Hell, even the women of the fishing village refer to her as the Huntsman’s burden. In fact, the Hunstman’s back story reveals that he’s trying to atone for that one time he failed another helpless woman. Giving him a second chance to prove how much of a good man he is stands as one of the most proactive things Snow White does.
That said, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was able to counter this (if only slightly) through a wonderful cast and a stylish production design. Snow White and the Huntsman has nothing resembling that charm. Stewart might as well be a cardboard cutout in the lead role. There’s nothing engaging or exciting about her. And her British accent is terrible. While Theron and Hemsworth’s accents are grating, at least the pair can do them properly. Hemsworth’s charm seems barely able to shine through a fairly blunt script. Theron is the best of the cast, but even her wonderfully hammy delivery (“you cannot defeat me!”) can only do so much. At least she seems to be enjoying herself, and – when she’s on-screen – that enjoyment is contagious. Sadly, she is consistently on-screen.
And the plot seems to rely on several of the characters being complete idiots. When the Queen seizes the castle, we’re asked to accept that she kept Snow White locked in a dungeon for years. Why not just kill her? Indeed, the outside world seems surprised she’s alive, so it would have been easy enough to make it look like an accident in the chaos of the palace coup. Instead, she keeps the potential figurehead who could topple her not only alive, but inside the walls of her castle? I know the mirror didn’t tell her any of that stuff about Snow White kicking her ass until later, but it seems like common sense.
Also, the Queen’s brother, Finn is a moron. When he comes to take Snow White to his sister (possibly after assaulting her), he doesn’t bring any guards with him for some reason. Snow White’s grand escape consists of cutting him in the face and running out of the cell door he left open. It’s really hard to feel like Snow White is facing a challenge if that’s what she’s up against. Later, while the Huntsman is holding Snow White, Finn tells him that their deal is void and that the Huntsman is a fool. Look, I’m not an expert in negotiation, but it seems to me that you’d wait until the guy handed over what you wanted before screwing him over – or at least wait until you had the situation under control before calling him an idiot. It’s hard to take the film seriously when even the most basic plot points don’t hold up.
On the other hand, the production design is quite nice. In fairness to director Rupert Sanders, he sort of quasi-magical fantasy land looks intriguing, where there’s generally a line between what’s really there and what the audience perceives (the “dark forest” monsters being the results of magic mushrooms, for example). The movie does struggle a bit to balance its lighter and darker elements – often veering too far and too rapidly from one extreme to the other – but it looks quite good. It offers a feast for the eyes, most of it crafted with a wonderful eye towards balancing the fantastic with the more grounded.
Unfortunately, there’s no substance to it. It doesn’t work as a reimaging, because it doesn’t have anything interesting to say. There’s nothign exciting or compelling or unique about this version of Snow White. And that’s a shame.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alice in wonderland, charlize theron, chris hemsworth, film, Hemsworth, Huntsman, kristen stewart, Movie, non-review review, Queen, Race and ethnicity in the United States Census, review, Sam Claflin, snow white, Snow White and the Huntsman, SnowWhite, Takin, Theron, tim burton, universal studios