Movie Review: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN
I wanted to love this movie. I really did. It first came on my radar a couple of years ago when the script set off a bidding war in Hollywood and eventually sold for a record $3.2 million. And then the trailers started to come out, and while I’m becoming a little tired of the “gritty reboot” treatment for every damn story under the sun, the trailers got me going. I liked the twist it put on the Snow White mythology, keeping the classic tropes of the story while cranking up the dark fantasy, and the trailers were well made and left me with real chills.
I’ve seen so many great trailers to so many shite movies, I really should know better; when the reviews were in and the Tomatometer came down at 46%, I really should have known better. But I went to see it anyway, hoping — despite everything I know from both watching and being involved in movies — I would disagree. I mean, THE FOUNTAIN is one of my favorite films and it got 51%, so it’s not out of the question.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is a lot of things, but it is not THE FOUNTAIN. It’s cliche, superficial, by-the-numbers, and dull, dull, dull. In our TRANSFORMERS commentary at Down in Front, Trey talked about how during the film he got so bored his mind began to wander and he actually forgot he was watching the film. I had that experience with SNOW WHITE. My thoughts began to drift and after several minutes I’d suddenly think, “Oh my god, I’m still here, watching this.” And the worst part is, it most often happened during the action sequences.
In a certain sense, it’s perverse to call the film predictable. While it’s draped in new and interesting fabrics, the shape of the story is two hundred years old. But based on the promise of the premise, a dark reimagining of the mythology, I was hoping to see it hit the beats in more imaginative ways, maybe turn a few on their heads. It starts off well enough, but as it goes along it becomes stunningly unimaginative, with characters fitting broad archetypes (the blind character who “sees” what the others do not; the down-on-his-luck male lead introduced in a tavern fight), making completely inexplicable decisions for plot expedience, saying completely boilerplate, hackneyed lines also for plot expedience and totally devoid of genuine personality.
Charlize Theron is wasted here, doing her best to bring some kind of depth to a character whose screen time consists almost wholly of either exposition or standard thwarted-villain shouting (“You have failed me!” and “Out. …OUT!”). Only rarely does the film give us glimpses of the quiet, charismatic menace promised in the trailers, and she makes the most of these moments, but overall, such a waste.
I don’t have any kind of principled hatred of Kristen Stewart, but the girl is monotone incarnate. She has absolutely no screen presence, literally just has the same look on her face the whole movie. We can only gauge her emotions by how many saline tears the makeup department squirted into her eyes before each take. She has little enough to work with, it’s true, but I couldn’t help thinking what a more charming actor — Emma Watson, for example — could have done with the role, with just the odd twinkle of the eye or slight twist of the lip.
I like Chris Hemsworth well enough — he was fine in THOR and AVENGERS and I liked him in CABIN IN THE WOODS — but like the two female leads, he’s given little to work with. The closest he gets to having a character is he speaks with a heavy (but, to my ear at least, consistent) brogue, and the film occasionally hand-waves vaguely at some backstory about a dead wife he’s sad about.
The characters in the film with the most personality are the dwarfs. Despite a lack of presence in the title and most of the marketing, the dwarfs (eight of them; débauche d’imagination) do appear in this movie, and the few amusing moments of genuine character in the film all belong to them.
Distractingly, the dwarfs are all played by non-dwarf actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. While scale doubles and camera trickery made sense for LORD OF THE RINGS — in which case several of the main characters were Hobbits, who are supposed to look like average-proportioned human children, and dwarves are a distinct race and not differently-proportioned humans — here they are clearly meant to be (or to look like) human “little people,” with regular-proportioned heads and torsos and shorter limbs. It’s not like they used the dwarfs as a selling point of the film, so I don’t know why they had to be well-known actors. In a post-Tyrion Lannister fantasy landscape, when people are aware of the challenges facing little person performers, how few non-demeaning roles exist for them — to have a major big budget film with not just one little person role but eight of them, and to cast them all with non-little people, struck me as a bizarre variation on blackface and a huge slap in the face to an entire community of actors.
That being said, from a story standpoint the dwarfs have pretty much no business being in the film at all. They don’t move Snow White or Huntsman’s character arcs forward in any meaningful way — aside from wagging on about some prophecy about how Snow White is awesome — and their ultimate function in the entire film is just to open a gate. They’re only here because a Snow White story thinks they’re supposed to be here — or it thinks we think they’re supposed to be here — when the film would have done better to reimagine them right out the door and spend the screen time developing the relationship between Snow White and Huntsman, and/or Snow White and her destiny.
And let’s talk briefly about this destiny thing. I’m getting so tired of the Chosen One trope I think it warrants a post of its own, but in brief the Chosen One trope has become a lazy way of getting your hero to resolve the story solely by saying s/he can. Instead of showing how a character grows in confidence and skill and becomes the kind of character who could plausibly vanquish the story’s particular evil through what they’ve learned, the Chosen One simply spends the whole film being told that s/he is going to vanquish evil in the end, because some mystical (usually unspecified) source said so and that’s all there is to it. There’s no character development, no effort taken to show the audience why this character is awesome, how this character could become a vanquisher of evil, just a series of conversations in which it’s repeatedly asserted that the character must be awesome because Teh Propheceh. The character “arc” generally entails accepting their own inner awesomeness leading into the third act and defeating the evil basically by just showing up, usually getting by on some contrived magical technicality.
SNOW WHITE plays into all of these tropes, with nary a subversion in sight, with Snow being so “pure” and “fair” that trolls and forest spirits (the latter in a scene lifted shamelessly out of PRINCESS MONONOKE) bow before her and a whole army rallies behind her after she yammers out an utterly unintelligible “inspirational” speech. And she’s the only one who can kill the evil queen because, you know, she’s pure and fair and stuff. Not because she has just the right set of skills and knowledge and courage to do so. Just because of an accident of birth. And as she need have no skills, knowledge, or courage in order to succeed, she indeed has no skills, knowledge, or particular courage. She wins just by showing up.
It’s a pity because there are some cool ideas here — for example, a refugee village of women who deliberately scar their faces so that the Queen in her obsession with beauty will not see them as threats. We have a seed of an exploration of women’s paths to power in the Western world, hints of backstory for the Queen which could have been fascinating had they been more than simply setting up the magical technicality which would be her undoing. And there was probably something to be said about the obsessive pursuit and falsified portrayals of youth and beauty rampant in our culture today in a way they weren’t in 1937. There might have been a reason to retell this story now, today, in a different light. Might have been something new to say, a new perspective on the old fable besides just making it more action-oriented and “gritty.”
Might have been. But isn’t. And it’s really just a shame.