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Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

'Remarkably backward, and more than a little offensive… You shouldn't have to watch this.'

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, Snow White and the Huntsman is the second feature film adaptation of Snow White this year. No, it is not the good one. That’s saying a lot, obviously. A lot of people hated Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, a quirk of a film that’s hard to take seriously, but at least that misfire had a personality of its own and a heroine who was actually in control of her own destiny. Lily Collins’s Snow White had a sense of humor, an appreciation for adventure and the wherewithal to solve her own problems. The Kristen Stewart version of the character is a non-entity who exists only so men can stare at her like she’s the second coming of Christ, and so Charlize Theron can have something to overact about. The movie itself feels cobbled together from left over bits and pieces from Ladyhawke, Conan the Destroyer, Princess Mononoke (believe it or not) and, most importantly, Tangled. Let’s talk about that.

The plot of Snow White and the Huntsman involves a young princess who grows up in a prison tower and eventually escapes, teaming up with a dashing but flawed rogue and confronting a campy witch who needs to kidnap the heroine in order to stay eternally young. But unlike Tangled, the other film that matches that description perfectly, it’s very bad. Tangled treated the shut in protagonist like a human being, and she reacts to the world she’s been kept from with a combination of wonder and objectivity. Tangled brought the love interests together by placing them in exciting situations that forced them to set aside their differences and share their personal secrets, forming a close and believable bond. Tangled squared the heroes off against a villain with a close connection to the heroine as well as a more active supporting antagonist who posed a more immediate threat and established his own connection with the heroes based on his unique motivations. Snow White and the Huntsman does the exact opposite of all those things.

Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart, has no unique point of view. She was locked up for over a decade but the traumatizing experience has had little to no effect on her, so instead of behaving like a human being she simply wanders from one awkwardly transitioned set piece to the next, putting up a front of individuality but always needing rescue at the hands of The Huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth. The Huntsman has a backstory involving his dead wife, whom the evil Queen, played by Charlize Theron, promises to bring back to life in exchange for capturing Snow White. This motivation should generate inner conflict for the hero, who has an important personal goal that he should have trouble setting aside greater good, but it is immediately thrown out the window within minutes of his introduction. He learns right away that the Queen can’t resurrect the dead, so he just assumes the role of the “good guy.” The kind of character dynamic that should bring the heroes together romantically – i.e. the kind that threatens to pull them apart, forcing them to undergo personal growth in order resolve the storyline as well as their differences – is never even a possibility. And so the central relationship of the film, the one that was important enough to put in the title, is one of the most boring parts of Snow White and the Huntsman.

As for the other parts, well, there’s that Queen, played with camp exuberance by an otherwise talented actress, forced here to say ridiculous lines of dialogue like, “I will be immortal… forever!” The first third of Snow White and the Huntsman spends a lot of time with her, and unfortunately the rest of the film doesn’t follow suit. She’s prone to bizarre behavior like bathing in lotion and feeding the semen-like runoff to her starving peasants, who gobble it down with orgiastic glee. That’s… really weird, but at least it’s original. She also needs to eat Snow White’s heart in order to live forever, but she’ll also apparently die if she comes into contact with Snow White’s blood, which is damned confusing. Theron spends most of the film rapidly aging while she waits for her henchmen to capture Snow White, even though she can make herself younger at any time by stealing youth from her peasants. Which she eventually does, but only several days after it seems necessary. It’s pretty clear that somebody wasn't thinking too hard about the plot.

They also weren’t thinking too hard about the supporting cast. The Queen’s magic powers don’t work in the forest where Snow White and the Huntsman are hiding (which is damned convenient to the plot, never explained, and also eventually ignored when she shows up in a magical disguise), so for most of the movie the main villain is her brother Finn, played by Sam Spruell in what I can only refer to as “a most unfortunate haircut.” Token attempts are made to turn Finn into a real character – he has a crush on Snow White, and at the very last minute reveals he has something to do with the Huntsman’s tragic past – but for the bulk of the film he’s just “Bad Guy #2.” So inconsistent is this character that he’s initially treated as a screw-up who’s easily overpowered by the Huntsman, but later reveals himself to be an expert swordsman, simply because the plot demanded a little more suspense. He’s not quite as useless as Nathan Lane in Mirror Mirror, but nowhere near as compelling as Tangled’s Maximus. And Maximus was a horse.

I realize that fairy tales are meant to be a fantasy. In ye olden times, they focused on a lovely heroine who survived an adventure and, in the end, married well. That doesn’t fly anymore, and recent attempts to update the fairy tale genre – like Tangled (obviously), Mirror Mirror and Ever After – have taken great pains to establish their heroines as intelligent, free thinking individuals who can save their own day, thank you very much. I presume, or at least I hope, that the current target demographic for these kinds of fantasies are now more interested in imagining themselves as the heroes of their own life’s story. In that regard, Snow White and the Huntsman feels remarkably backward, and more than a little offensive. Stewart’s Snow White is so hopelessly underwritten that the only thing you can blame the actress for is failing to sell her one big moment, a speech to rally the troops for the big climactic battle, written so awkwardly that it would give Vanessa Redgrave trouble. Snow White treated messianically but only because of her “purity,” which specifically and rather insultingly translates to physical attractiveness, not because of anything she actually does. And her climactic move towards heroism – leading the charge – is undermined by a horrific line of dialogue from The Huntsman, who says she “looks fetching in mail.” Yes, “mail” rhymes with “male.” Her character development is limited to acting more like a man, and the film subverts even that already questionable character arc by condescendingly sexualizing it. There simply aren’t enough “boos” in the world to yell at that part of the movie.

Snow White and the Huntsman has plenty of action, some impressive special effects and occasional moments of utter ridiculousness that make it somewhat watchable, but you shouldn’t have to watch this in the first place. I think we are past Snow White and the Huntsman as a culture. It’s poorly conceived, shabbily plotted, devoid of character development and at least arguably sexist. It’s not the fairest of them all. It’s actually a very ugly experience.