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Non-Review Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

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.

Not quite queen of our hearts…

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?

Hunt first, axe questions later…

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.

Takin’ its troll on her…

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.

A glass act…

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.

The Great Stag of the Forest… wait, wrong fairytale…

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.

I don’t know why they’re rushing. I’m sure it’ll Keep.

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.

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13 Responses

  1. Wow, totally disagree with you.I loved it and thought Stewart was excellent and that her accent was spot on, but Charlize, while brilliant as the Evil Queen, misfired with her effort. I’m going to see this again at the weekend. One of my favourites so far this year!

    • Cool. I’m glad you liked it.

    • Stewart’s accent was pretty awful. And her acting? “If you return without me, you’re dead. If you leave me, I’m dead”. Oh, cringe. I’m seriously considering taking up a career in acting, as you apparently just have to be a plank with hair and a voice to get a leading role.

      That said, I still really enjoyed the film. It was as terrible as Twilight and Red Riding Hood in one, but thoroughly enjoyable in a light-but-dark escapist way. Visually, it was quite nice to watch. In terms of acting, Theron was sufficiently scary :) Both Theron and Stewart have presence, even if the latter is lacking in any great acting skill. As for little Scottish Thor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ8FGR

      I also wondered why the bejesus the brother revealed that his sister didn’t have the power to bring people back. It really would have saved him a lot of trouble. However, if you block your ears to some of the plot silliness and squint your eyes to some of the wooden acting and Finn’s terrifying haircut, the entire thing could almost be considered Shakespearean. :)

      • Is it wrong that I’m now imagining Shakespeare on the set with a little quill while the cameras whirling around, “I cannot work under these conditions!” Prompting the director to boot him off the set remarking, “Me thinks he did protest too much!”?

        But yes, I know that Finn had to be incompetent to underscore the queen’s attitude towards men – because, let’s face it, if your closest male relative was that much of an idiot, you’d probably have issues too. Still, I can’t understand why the Queen would delegate anything more important to him than picking the colour of his own undergarments. Not least without somebody to… “supervise.”

  2. It seems the most successful modernized re-telling of a classic fairy tale is “Tangled,” where the character of Rapunzel truly drives the story. While there’s the fact that she’s been imprisoned unjustly, her personality does not make her a victim, but rather she stands up for her own rights and makes decisions that drive the story. She’s also pretty good in the action scenes, and can hold her own against the guy who “saves” her.

  3. Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

  4. Almost 2 years ago someone sent me the original script. I read it and it was so awful that I seriously couldn’t understand anyone not throwing it away and starting over, or if someone did get it then trashing it quick. And he got a million dollars for that piece of crap. I still have it PDF so if you come to one of my blogs – probably moviesandfilm dot blogspot (no www) and comment on disqus that you want it I will email it to you. I have taught 3rd graders who would have laughed themselves silly over that piece of junk.

    It seems that all the rest who came on board just tried to fix it up. And to spend 170 million dollars on this piece of stupidity convinces you that you are living in a madhouse that is total with no escape.

    What is the world coming to. I know. The Hunger Games is going to come true.

    • 170m? That is insane. And none of that spent on a decent script.

      • Well Darren it’s like cooking. As Barbra Streisand said in Prince of Tides, “Just because I don’t cook doesn’t mean I don’t know how to eat.”

        Or inverted, I say that if you don’t know how to eat you can never learn how to cook well.

        Insane? First you have to be well read to know what a good script is and isn’t. This is Cruise’s problem. He’s dyslexic so he can’t tell. These Hollywood suits, who don’t read, just don’t know what a good script should be like. All they know as William Burroughs accurately said, “They just repeat what was successful the last time. Until it doesn’t work anymore. they saturate you with it and that disappears it. (Baudrillard)

      • I don’t know. I think Cruise can be great when he wants to be. I think he really deserved at least an Oscar nomination for Collateral, and I think his casting in Tropic Thunder was superb. (And, to be fair, I like Knight & Day a lot better than the other wannabe espionage thrill rides that year – Salt or The Tourist – and I suspect that Cruise signed on pretty much sight unseen because, as far as I can tell, he has always wanted to play Jame Bond.) That said, there’s a lot of generic crap, and Rock of Ages was just an attempt to re-do his Tropic Thunder thing.

        Of course, there’s also the fact that many actors sign on without a finished script. or they sign on with a finished script that then turns out to be not-so-finished. And it’s revised and gutted in editting. I bet Brad Pitt is ruing the day he signed on to do World War Z at the moment. And, as you note, in that situation you have to wonder how a script like that got into production in the first place. Either it’s broken and they shoot it anyway (as they did here) or they start shooting it and frantically try to re-write it while doing so. Either way, it’s a mess.

      • I like Cruise a lot too. He just misses being great. Minority Report was reviewed by Baudrillard. Tropic thunder was fine. Rock of Ages just hit the saturation point for these rock star bios. Hollywood keeps doing what worked the last time. And there aren’t any literate people in the movie business at the top. They read scripts not books and their taste is not so good. Cruise was wonderful in that Magnolia was it one, where he played the motivation guru being interviewed, the son of Jason Robards Junior who was dying. Glad he didn’t get James Bond. It’s ruined Daniel Craig. Brosnan has done wonderful things since his Bond days. I have 5 scripts sitting on disc from books I loved. Nothing of me in them, just carefully edited and put on Final Draft. It’s a wonderful way to study a book. William Burroughs told me to do it in an interview of his I read.

        I just think if Cruise were literate he wouldn’t have to rely on his 6th sense so much. It served him well for so long, but most of those older movies are now very dated and not so wonderful to watch.

        Years ago I wanted him to do Heathcliff. Wuthering Heights has never been done RIGHT! The dirty little secret of that novel remains hidden because it is so dirty, and without exposing it very subtly but unmistakably something is always lacking in each of the films made from it no matter how exceptional the actors are.

        I could go on.

      • When you say “the dirty little secret”, are you referring to the reading that suggest Heathcliffe is Cathy’s half-brother? (And that Mr. Earnshaw didn’t just find an orphan to take home, but was actually collecting his secret lovechild?) I think Eric Solomon wrote a pretty good essay on that idea.

        ((I have to confess, I actually really didn’t like Wuthering Heights when I read it years ago, and it’s possible I completely missed some of the subtext.))

      • I’m too Foucaultian at this point to go back to interpreting things like that. I do my best to stay on the surface altho Zizek is twisting my mind on that right now.

        Look Heathcliff comes from the streets of London. The streets we know from Dickens. As a child he has seen everything. Like Durrell writes about the children in Alexandria. Like the children in the movie, you know, it won an Academy Award a couple of years ago, well, it will come to me. So Heathcliff has seen prostitutes slammed up against a wall, he has watched copulation ad infinitum. He has seen murder, viciousness, all of it. There is nothing as a child he hasn’t seen and heard.

        So Earshaw brings him home on a Rosseau whim. Like the Wild Child by Truffaut if you saw it. And he becomes the beloved playmate of Cathy. they are wild children, running free all over the heath, and Cathy teaches him sensitivity, or at least he experiences it with her. The feather scene at the end when she is dying and the feathers of the birds plucking them from the pillow in handfuls resonating with Ophelia’s bouquet of flowers in her mad speech and Stephenie Meyer’s omitted sex scene in Breaking Dawn. Just feathers afterwards all over.

        Back to WH. Do you have any doubt that they indulged in quite a lot of sex play that didn’t stop with adolescence? Theirs was a passionate sexual longing even if not fully consummated as young adults. Why it is such a great novel is that it follows the Tristan and Iseult legend without faltering. Only Emily Bronte and Richard Wagner in his Tristan and Isolde take it all the way to Death. all the rest of the romances stop with happily ever after or close to it. Stephenie Meyer doesn’t flinch either. Only she opts for Virtual Reality for Bella, which if you get into Baudrillard is DEATH.

        The movies play it as a doomed romance. Dying for love I think as I haven’t seen all of them. I want to. But nowhere does anyone want to touch this childhood sexuality between them. Nabokov would have. Without it it just doesn’t coalesce. It doesn’t ring true, because THAT is being avoided consciously or unconsciously. So WH reveals and conceals.

        How I came to this is another story. I read a lot about the Brontes and caught snippets of what was said innocently by people who knew them. Their father was a brute, pure and simple. I don’t think he molested them, but he certainly sexually abused their mother. I didn’t want to go this far here, but, oh well.

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