On the surface, Snow White and the Huntsman is my favorite kind of fairy tale movie: dark and gritty in parts, almost painterly in its cinematography, fast paced and fun. The magic meted out by the power hungry Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is ruthless and more than a little intimidating. Not for me are bursts of tacky humor and saccharine coziness, which is what Mirror, Mirror seems to be (the other Snow White movie of the year, suddenly making it seem like a hot trend alongside the popular TV series Once Upon A Time). Yet, even though this movie gets quite a few things right, when it fails, it fails at some of the most crucial elements.
Snow White has hints of classic 80s fantasy flicks like Neverending Story and Legend, which is always a plus for me (although in some scenes, the nods are a little too blatant). The visual effects are dazzling, both with well integrated CGI and fast paced editing. The costume design by award winner Colleen Atwood is really a character in itself. Charlize Theron would have looked powerful and beautiful wearing a trash bag, but Atwood’s creations definitely elevate the performance to another level. Ravenna’s outfits are a regal mix of glittering gold, inky feathers, baby bird skulls, opalescent jewels, swishing silks and velvets, and dangerously fierce headdresses.
At the heart of the film is a cautionary tale about the perils and the power of beauty. The Queen has been indoctrinated with the belief that her appearance is her greatest asset, which she uses to conquer and slay men before they have a chance to turn around and hurt her. Theron delivers a dazzling, nuanced performance that is almost too good. In Ravenna she creates a nemesis who is both ruthless and panicked, thirsting for power yet obviously trapped by it. The Queen is addicted to youth and beauty, to the point that she cannot even deal with seeing tiny crow’s feet in the corners of her eyes, and Theron makes such a triviality seem like a believable source of devastation. We don’t need to know her motivation at this point because there isn’t much left: it’s all just an ugly, selfish momentum that has been propelling Ravenna from one conquest to another for all these years. She is so vicious and sad that I found myself rooting for her more than I did for Snow White, the one chink in the Queen’s armor. Which is a problem, because the movie isn’t called Ravenna and her Creepy Incestuous Brother, or Ravenna and her Talking Mirror. Snow White, as the intended hero and underdog of the story, fails to deliver.
In Snow White, the script means to bring us a heroine who is sweet and delicate in some ways, but also resourceful and brave, a survivor through and through. Her need to turn to men around her for assistance isn’t exactly a sign of weakness but an indication of her ability to assess her strengths and acknowledge when she might be in over her head. She runs, fights, kicks, and stabs her way to freedom. It’s the sort of action heroine that is often lacking. The problem is that we might see the intent and the fighting spirit in her, but most of the characters in the movie just seem to fixate on her purity, kindness, and beauty. The Queen covets Snow White’s heart because of those qualities; the dwarves (yes, of course there are dwarves, although I won’t even go into the really disconcerting CGI casting of actors like Bob Hoskins and Nick Frost, digitally shrunk) swoon over her; woodland creatures scramble for a chance to be petted by those milky white hands. The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), sent after her to the Dark Forest, at first seems to treat her with the same level of disdain he reserves for everyone around him, heartbroken drunkard that he is. He gives her a knife and teaches her a few protective moves, without coddling her. Yet, in some particularly well lit scenes, where the sun lingers on Snow White’s pale skin just so, or he catches her with a particularly
vacant dreamy look in her eyes, even he begins to moon. Snow White’s indomitable spirit and strength of heart are supposed to be the salvation of the kingdom, but all we seem to get is just how angelic and lovely she is to everyone around her.
But beyond that is Kristen Stewart’s lackluster performance. I wanted to give her the benefit of doubt, having really enjoyed her turn as Joan Jett. I hoped hers might be a quiet, lurking sort of intensity that usually gets drowned out by others around her, or by a horrible plot (coughTwilightcough); that when it shines through, it’s lovely. But in this movie, that’s bobbing for apples when there are none. Throughout most of movie, it’s hard to say when Snow White is scared, angry, or just sleepy. In a scene that’s supposed to be a turning point, where she wakes up to her destiny (both literally and figuratively) and finally finds the strength to motivate a small army of men to follow her into battle, her cry to arms has about as much conviction as an invitation to crash a house party that might be kinda cool, or whatever. Granted, her performance as Snow White is a far cry from the starry eyed and tragic Bella Swan of the Twilight saga, but if you look at the source material, that’s not saying much.
Maybe I really was meant to feel for Snow White during the treacherous journey she takes through the Dark Forest, to be inspired when she somehow manages to convince the most stalwart cynics that they should wage a battle against the Queen. Instead, I looked forward to every moment that Charlize Theron would be on screen. Without seemingly intending to, Snow White and the Huntsman ends up a beautiful tale of loss and corruption, and the girl with fair skin, lips as red as blood, hair as dark as a raven’s wing is entirely incidental.