Usually seeing one of these “it people” match-ups is a lot less fun.
Snow White and the Huntsman is sort of the anti-John Carter. This is to say that it’s actually a good movie and one not saddled by a number of crippling flaws and ridiculous creative choices. Why compare it to John Carter (and the many movies like it) though? Let me explain how this works.In terms of plot and the story beats, Snow White isn’t all that different from John Carter or the countless other Rise of Hero type movies that I tend to call McEpics. It features the same basic arc including the now obligatory one-two punch of rousing speech and big ol’ final battle. Snow White may include these overly familiar bits, but it does them right enough to mostly shake off the lingering malaise of what is rapidly becoming a comically overdone style of film. There are many problems with the style, but they are not inherent problems. They are execution problems or they are core problems which usually begin with a hackneyed script. Snow White and the Huntsman, written by Evan Daugherty, does not have a hackneyed script. Though it was produced by the same people and features the “gritty fantasy fairy tale reskin” it also has very little in common with Alice in Wonderland, a truly abominable film.
I mean let’s be fair, this movie does err one the side of realism wherever possible and is only structurally similar to Alice while retaining a very different artistic direction.
In a McEpic, they usually skip characterization, only supplying the barest details needed to justify obvious, contrived developments or in service of the same boring themes delivered in the same boring ways. Snow White does not skip character-ization. Every character that is in the movie for more than a couple of scenes gets plenty of attention. Not everyone gets a complete character arc, because let’s face it: this is a franchise-starter, but no one feels sketched or cardboard.
Beginning with Ravenna, the evil queen (Charlize Theron), this is not a movie where the bad guys are bad cuz whatever. Ravenna is a sadistic, nihilistic archsorceress and she is driven by a hatred for men and the civilization they create. The unnamed kingdom of Magnus, Snow White’s father, is only the latest in a long series of conquests Ravenna has bought with her pretty face and dark magic. Along with her brother Finn (Sam Spruell, who is a total fucking creep in this movie), she moves around with her band of mercenaries and fucks shit up. Though Snow White is often fairly gritty (how much fucking fake mud did they go through anyway!?), there are always places where it gives itself breathing room to be a fantasy movie first. Ravenna may be a three-dimensional villain (she has history, motive, and agency) but many of her… affectations are all about balancing the dark and dreary with sexy high fantasy.
Theron nails the character but her performance is not the stand-out.
After betraying, murdering, and usurping Magnus, Ravenna sticks Snow White in a tower and goes about her business. To counteract the draining/aging effects of her magic, Ravenna consumes the souls of young, beautiful women. Beauty is the first and most powerful too in her arsenal, but her focus on the physical leaves her blind to Snow’s “inner beauty”, a quality which makes her a sort of metaphysical opposite to Ravenna and thus a key to either her salvation (consuming her heart means immortality) or destruction. It’s all perfectly natural to this type of movie, but the personal relationship and stakes between Ravenna and Snow keeps things both dramatic and resonant to the feminist underpinnings of the film (more on this later).
Fortunately for the movie, the link between Ravenna and Snow White goes deeper than just magical babble. We actually see the way they are opposites. Where Ravenna goes, devastation follows. Her presence and darkness have an effect on the land itself. As the movie progresses, we see that Snow White has the opposite effect. At first this is subtle, a tree sprouting single bloom, and later much more dramatic. Snow White and the Huntsman is a movie with many influences and pays homage to nothing more significantly than to Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. One of the things that uplifts this movie, even if only temporarily, from the realm of “good” to something more special, is just that homage.
There are several scenes where we get a real sense of wonder, awe, and mystery. These scenes fit into the tapestry of the film which manages to balance its tone very effectively without digressing too far from the core heroic elements.
Another obvious referent for this movie is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. In fact, Snow White follows a similar through-line: chase with horror elements (the Dark Forest introduction is great), realization of quest, travel in pursuit of quest, and finally the rallying of allies and final battle. The movie is halfway over by the time we get to part where Snow White’s importance is fully evident. To usher this in, we get to meet the dwarves. There are eight of them, not seven, and they begin as desperate bandits only to become staunch allies. Muir (Bob Hoskins) is the elder, a blind old fella who sees Snow White for what she is right away. Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Nick Frost are the character actors who round out the ensemble and all of them find ways to bring their colorful little guys to life. They get development mostly as a unit, sort of a seven or eight part character, and if I have one complaint about the film it’s that these guys could have had more due.
Through her effect on the dwarves and the Huntsman, we also start to understand how Snow White’s compassion and determination are key parts of her character. She also seems to have one foot in another world, something that attracts the Huntsman (and us). These traits are the foundation of her becoming a leader, a journey she’s on throughout the film and which finally comes to a head in the camp of her father’s friend, Duke Hammond, where the last free people try to resist Ravenna’s rule. With the help of her childhood friend William (Sam Claflin) and through a bit of providential magic (the Huntsman kisses her back alive, sorta as per the fairy tale), Snow white gets to where she needs to be. There’s a big ol’ speech that Kristen Stewart totally sells, though it isn’t one of the best written parts of the movie, and Snow White rallies her army to take the fight to Ravenna.
Though a lot of the marketing featured her in the armor and with the sword and shield (both items actually have a bit of story significance, a nice touch), they don’t try to insta-convert Snow White into some kind of warrior. In fact, she tells the Huntsman that she wouldn’t be able to kill someone. The armor and weapons are symbolic, a wise choice that hints at the thoughtfulness behind the scenes that lead to them. If Rupert Sanders is responsible and if he can bring similar chops to a sequel, I’m certainly down.
For one thing, I like the trend of reclaiming fairy tale stories as works of heroic fantasy fiction aimed at least as much at women as at men. The one good thing you could say about Alice in Wonderland is that it had this going for it. Well, Snow White is the keeping of that promise. Snow White may need the help of men, but she also needs the help of women (the scarred women of Fenland) and dwarves, and other beings beside. Ultimately, her battle is one owned by a woman and to be fought against another woman, one who has reacted to the world of men with total malice where Snow exudes grace and sympathy. The final scene between Ravenna and Snow White is haunting, for example, precisely because it’s them alone (the black glass monster is plenty cool though) with both each other and their inner issues. I wouldn’t say that Snow White and the Huntsman is a great big feminist enterprise, but it has the kind of moderate (and modern) feminist trappings that pretty well mean that feminism is normalized. It’s the recognition that it’s simply time for movies with swords and sorcery where the heroes are women who don’t have to be sexualized to fit in (this is a pretty chaste movie). That it manages to fit in some of the tropes of masculine heroic fantasy through the Huntsman and William while co-opting a traditionally “for girls” tale is a fucking coup.
The stand-out performance in this film is, believe it or not, Kristen Stewart’s.
Kristen Stewart is a huge victim of Twilight and I think she knows it. Because of Bella Swann, people basically think she’s a joke. What they forget is that Stewart has a respectable resume with fine performances in the likes of Adventureland and Into the Wild. She is also widely praised for The Runaways. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t buy her in the lead role for a movie like this and I nodded along sagely when I heard the rumor that they kept her limited in the marketing because her accent was terrible. In fact, her accent is just fine and it anchors her performance, giving her an instant layer of authenticity that carries directly over into everything she does in the film. While she isn’t a Charlize Theron, Stewart also exudes a beauty that is aided by her sad, slightly weathered eyes. You believe she’s spent 10+ years in a dungeon. You also believe that men like the Huntsman and William would be into her. She’s an innocent, with a layer of damaged vulnerability covering deep reserves of courage and determination. That’s just attractive in a person, let alone a princess or fantasy heroine.
Speaking of which. I figured this was going to have one of those obligatory, rushed love stories. It doesn’t. Some people are complaining about unearned bits like the Huntsman’s farewell when he thinks she’s dead or that it’s weird when she kisses her cousin (William is not her cousin). There’s an extent to which a bit of banter would have helped balance out Stewart and Hemsworth’s performances. He’s a tortured but lovable rogue, she’s an innocent and kind-hearted princess in a desperate fix. They are Han Solo and Leia, basically, but only in template. That said, the movie ends with the implication that there’s something between them, something that never goes further than looks or that fateful kiss. There’s just as much basis for a romance to develop between William and Snow. This means the point is to make implications, not create some grand love story (yet). The lack of development here is not a weakness caused by sloppiness, though. It’s fully intended, even if it is part of the often cynical attempt to kickstart a new cash-gobbling franchise. If they’d used the kiss as a magic switch to romance, like other movies often do, I’d be far more critical of it.
A fun fact: there’s a lot of Willow in this movie, and I think some of the concept artists must have worked on Dragon Age: Origins. Just look at the armor, especially Hammond and William’s.
In the final analysis, the takeaways for Snow White and the Huntsman are the same as they are for any good movie that attempts world-building to facilitate story on a grand scale (like every McEpic with their Quonset huts of story): details fucking matter and so does earning your beats. Most of the beats in Snow White are fully earned and this has a lot to do with attention to detail, solid character writing, and never relying on audience familiarity with tropes to coast by without any real storytelling. Snow White and the Huntsman is not going to set the world on fire, but it has its moments, and it deserves better than the John Carter‘s of the world.
The only real complaints I have about this movie are that it isn’t quite long enough. It feels like it needed another 20 minutes or so to give some more to the dwarves and maybe a bit of a respite before the final battle, time to process whatever is happening with the Huntsman or William or both. It’s never a bad thing, truly, if the worst you can say about a movie is that you wanted there to be more. I should qualify, however, that this isn’t quite the same. I simply think the above mentioned stuff would work a bit smoother with more time and that I don’t, at least now, see much room for cuts in other places to accommodate that. Moreover, I’d also be giving the movie a bit of a pass if I didn’t mention that too much of the action is the same over-edited, uninspired, and unexciting masturbation we can pretty well take for granted these days. There are a few places where things are neat, but as a whole I’d say there was plenty of room to get inventive or simply refined with the battles and such and they are generic too much of the time for a movie that has this many of them. Then there’s also the weird fucking bit where Snow White says the Lord’s Prayer, which completely takes you out of the movie because you’re sitting there thinking “what am I, supposed to believe this is Europe!?”. That was just a straight-up false note, dudes.
But to leave things on a positive note, the presentation is simply marvelous. The photography, score (especially a stirring sad dwarfsong that segues into a haunting full scale piece), and special effects are all top notch. The visual beauty of the movie, which is the definition of lavish, should already be apparent from the marketing. Many of the best effects and images have already been featured in trailers, but there’s a consistency and (again) attention to detail that works so much better when taken as a whole.
So even if I’m totally wrong and talking out of my ass here, you’ll at least see beautiful things in beautiful ways in Snow White and the Huntsman. That’s incontrovertible!
I would watch a whole movie of drunken Scottish Huntsman and his band of surly dwarves.