Once upon a time, the beautiful princess lay in wait for her handsome prince to come rescue her.
That was then, this is now…
SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN tells the tale of a stunning woman named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who connived a king into marrying her. In short order, the king married the beautiful stranger, only to be killed by her magic on the very night of their wedding. She followed that, by locking up the king’s young daughter Snow White as prisoner in a castle tower. Now a queen of a powerful kingdom, Ravenna held fast to both her throne and her beauty. That is until Snow White approached her 18th birthday, and became a threat to her being fairest of them all.
Ravenna summons her guards to bring her the now-grown-up Snow White (Kristen Stewart), however Snow eludes her would-be garrison and manages to escape from the entire kingdom. She runs so far in fact, that she finds herself in the macabre Dark Forest where Ravenna’s magic is useless.
Wanting her prisoner retrieved, and now having lost faith in her soldiers, Ravenna has a Huntsman named Eric (Chris Hemsworth) brought to her. She coerces him to find Snow White, and find her he does. However, upon their meeting, the fugitive princess points out to The Huntsman that The Queen is playing him, and will surely welch on her part of the bargain. At that point, The Huntsman turns on Ravenna’s guards that have come with him into The Dark Forest…turning his attention instead to helping Snow White, and trying to overthrow the clearly evil queen.
Something feels out of joint with the storytelling in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN. Because the tale it chooses to tell is a story we all learn at an early age, anybody coming into this film over the age of seven can pick out what has changed. Curiously, what has changed is quit a bit, and at the same time not enough. It’s like listening to a cover song that isn’t being sung note for note but is also not a radical re-arrangement.
The new details begin by weaving themselves in and out: the prince’s role is downplayed, the huntsman’s role increased, and the dwarves almost sidelined. It’s all subtle enough that we play along. Then, for the final act, the film decides to go somewhere radically different. Suddenly, Snow White steps up like she has just finished reading Henry V and rallies the subjects to take on the queen. A character who has spent three-quarters of the film running the other way suddenly digs in to take a stand, and it comes off unbelievable.
Had Snow been a scrapper from the start – feisty, defiant, empowered – this act of aggression would stand. She isn’t though. She has been locked up for nine or ten years, and has been more or less a model prisoner in that time. She escapes without much incident, and even when The Huntsman catches up with her, her act of defiance is only to factually undermine her would-be regal captor. She still hasn’t started fighting.
What SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN wants to do, is make this would-be Xena less of a princess and more of a warrior. However, the transformation isn’t earned. Snow wakes up from her mystical power-nap and suddenly decides it’s time to strap on the armour and pick up a sword. Well, what took you so long princess? Your stepmom locked you up for half your life, sent Thor to cut out your heart, and then served you outcoded produce to get her way. Now you think it’s time to do something about it? Perhaps if the response to all of this villainy had been more measured, I still would have gone for it…but gathering the cavalry and storming the gates feels like a disproportionate response.
Making all of that just that much worse, is that Kristen Stewart doesn’t bring the sand to pull off this sort of empowerment. The problem for Stewart is that she is trying to play up her strength in the midst of a lot of other actresses playing up real strength. The will and fortitude that they have shown us in recent months are fresh in our brains, so it’s easy to pick out women who we can lump in with them, and the ones who come up wanting. I have no specific aversion to Kristen Stewart’s acting abilities (I actually believe this is more a writing and directing problem), but in thinking about her roles that I did like, her turn as Snow White comes up short.
The real shame is that the narrative mess takes away from what turns out to be a visually stunning film. Everything about Ravenna comes with a gothic elegance – from her crown, to her ability to dissipate into crows, to her emerging from a bath of milk. The metallic ghost that serves as the magic mirror is both haunting and intoxicating. Perhaps what’s greatest of all is stumbling into the Dark Forest, and realizing that it’s even more disturbing than the nightmares all those cartoons caused us to have as children. The film comes off like the most wonderfully illustrated storybook coming to life…why it chose to screw around with the stork that book was telling, I couldn’t say.
SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMEN would have been a miss all by itself, but what won’t help it is all the similar material out there to compare it to. Viewers like me find it pretty flat as it is; standing it next to its contemporaries doesn’t help matters. While I’d wager it will be a very long time before we ever see another Snow White interpretation, I am interested in seeing a version where Snow is more comfortable with a sword than she is singing harmony to woodland creatures…but if the writing makes that swordplay feel forced, she might as well keep singin’.