Directed by Rupert Sanders. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini; screen story by Evan Daugherty. Produced by Sam Mercer, Palak Patel, Joe Roth. Music by James Newton Howard. Photographed by Greig Fraser. Edited by Conrad Buff IV, Neil Smith. Production designed by Dominic Watkins. Starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Claflin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Vincent Regan.
Snow White and the Huntsman is the kind of movie they don’t make much anymore: it’s a lush, expensive fairy tale fantasy that is unafraid to get…well, a little dark. It reconfigures the familiar tale of Snow White and places it within a lavish action-adventure framework that cross-pollinates a big blockbuster with the Brothers Grimm, but refreshingly retains more of the latter than you might expect. It is also far removed from the beloved and well-known Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: it’s edgier, more violent, much less whimsical, and correctly says “dwarves” instead of “dwarfs.” (Sorry, that always bugged me.) It is also, I’d wager, not for young kids, although for that matter I guess that means the Brothers Grimm aren’t, either. Oh, did I mention it’s dark? It’s really dark at times.
The movie is not exactly great, but it has great conviction, and a great eye. This is a gorgeous-looking motion picture and an accomplished debut from Rupert Sanders, a former director of commercials. He utilizes skillful special effects, art direction and cinematography to create a world that is evocative, imaginative, and downright scary at times. And he seems to know much about archetypes: what they mean, why they matter. He takes the material seriously, when many others would sneer. After a decade of self-referential Shrek movies and other fare, how nice to see a big Hollywood film that doesn’t talk down to a fairy tale, but instead explores its power.
The film’s anchor is its villain, the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who in a well-done opening, snakes her way from prison into a king’s bedchamber, then usurps his throne through a little wedding-night regicide, and then by sheer presence casts a spell over the land that turns things dark, ugly and poisoned. Then she locks up the only remaining royal child, Snow White, in a high tower for a decade, while the young girl turns into Kristen Stewart. Snow White, on the day she comes of age (of course), is slated for death after the Magic Mirror fingers Snow as being the key to solving the Queen’s problem: staying pretty only by feasting on the souls of young girls. If the Queen were to eat Snow White’s heart, she would become—hey—immortal. Snow, who likes her heart where it is, thank you, escapes in a highly improbable chase sequence…but it’s the story, so let’s get on with it.
Theron gives a performance as the Queen that goes over the top, down the other side, and sizzles on the stove. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s always interesting. No, strike that. It is entirely successful, even when it isn’t, because she’s aided by cinematography that seems enthralled by her creepy awe. Sanders’ direction, DP Grieg Frasier’s compositions, Theron’s body language and the pervasive special effects all conspire to create a memorable monster who seems posed less as a villain and more as an elemental, unstoppable force of nature. She looks preternaturally vicious, even when sinking into a creamy milk bath or dispensing its used contents on the street for desperate peons to lap up for her amusement. Her first scene of menace is at her wedding, as an organ plays, and we realize that she’s not a mere evildoer. She’s Satan. And she comes complete with her own tragic backstory (more tragic for those around her, to be sure). The effect is unnerving in its implications: this movie believes in real evil. Actually believes in it, and is kinda scared of it.
The question becomes whether it believes in good. For that, we have Snow White, who is a little boring standing next to the Queen (who wouldn’t be?). But even still I don’t think she holds her own. The fault is not Kristen Stewart’s, who performs the role exactly as it is on paper. There’s just nothing there for her to really perform. Snow is a passive character at times (the most proactive thing she does in the first three-quarters is escape into the woods) and the rest of the time valued more for what she represents than her personality. Then at the end, the screenwriters position her as Joan of Arc, pretty much, and then call it a day. The script posits Snow as a “chosen one” (that never gets old!) to defeat the Queen and return balance to the land, and although she is much talked about and revered, she feels more like a device than a character. It must be tough for modern-day writers to reformat these pre-enlightened fairy tales with a more balanced treatment of the sexes, but Snow White’s treatment smacks of a deliberate choice to fashion a “strong” female character who is actually not very strong at all.
A better impression is made by Chris Hemsworth, who has really been on a roll the past few months (Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, this). His Huntsman character, who is a bit player in the classic fairy tale (I think), is blown up to leading man status here, and given his own backstory woes. He’s hired to track Snow White, natch. Will he quit his job and tag along with her? Will he learn to love her? I won’t say. Then there’s William (Sam Claflin), who is Snow’s childhood friend, and like all fairy tale childhood friends can instantly recognize her after having been separated from her for ten years. How does he fit in to this love story thing that may happen? I won’t tell. I’ll just say it’s a touch underdeveloped, on all sides.
The rest of the plot has the things you’d expect: poisoned apples, dwarves, more messages from the magic mirror. And a teeth-gnashing secondary villain, Finn (Sam Spruell), the Queen’s brother, who has a nasty disposition, a twisted face, and a knack for making surprise entrances and then undercutting them with tactical mistakes. And I’ll reveal the movie ends with a battle scene, because of course it does. It’s from the producer of Alice in Wonderland, which also tacked on a needless battle scene at the climax. Is that a Final Draft button, by the way? “Insert meaningless battle scenes?” At least this one’s better than Alice’s, and at least it comes down to a contest of wills between Snow White and the Queen, as it should.
Enough plot stuff. We’ve seen it before. What’s wonderful about the movie is the direction, the costumes, the lighting, the photography, and certainly the effects, which all build a dark fairy tale universe with effortless aplomb. There’s not a single shot in the movie that is realistic, but most of them are arresting. Snowfall creates tundra as fresh and clear as a china plate. Phantom armies fight and then shatter into onyx slivers. Decrepit villages pop up at odd, expressionist angles. An imposing castle beckons under parched land, and horses gallop over harsh landscapes, into a chilly forest that seems like it will rise up and swallow those perched at its edges. Hallucinogenic plants reveal a zoo of nightmarish forest-dwellers who feel ripped from a Guillermo Del Toro journal. A later trip to a magical glen has frame after frame of detailed, lovely imagery. There are beautiful shots and moments in this movie. And some beautifully ugly ones, like when a pack of wounded ravens morph into the Queen’s wounded figure by dropping messily onto the floor.
Yet the movie is not about special effects. It uses lots of special effects, yes. A lot. But that’s not the same thing. Every element feels chosen to enhance the worldview. Some are throwaways and some are major, but all of them feel generous, as if Sanders is surveying the world we’re in, and just really wants to show us something, for just a moment. There’s a bit of the same command of mis-en-scene here that informs the better Star Wars pictures, Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story and other fantasy classics: instead of characters that feel posed for special effects shots, they seem to inhabit this place.
Like many fairy tales, Snow White and the Huntsman is not simply about good and evil. There are notes sounded here of loss and grief, of ruined childhoods and terrible burdens. Also romantic uncertainty, and environmental decay, and of course, the dark side of monarchy. This is heavy stuff, but it’s not just for decoration—instead it’s a stand-in for real life woes that remain relatable: as murky as the metaphors may see, instinctively we know what this is really about, and are grateful.
And like many fantasies, there’s undercurrents of sexual themes, but not ones that overpower the main narrative. It’s simply there, is all, without being unduly pronounced. There’s the chaste “purity” of Snow White, her victimization under the hands of her pursuers… There’s the little scene where she hides at the base of a tree, enclosed like in a womb, until she’s ripped from it by evil thugs. We don’t get a unicorn (the classic fairy tale symbol for virginity), but we do get a white pony that aids her escape and a sacred hart (in one scene, that, like many, takes a page from Ridley Scott’s underappreciated Legend). Then, there’s the flip side, as the narcissistic and vile Ravenna hates all men, while the relationship she has with her brother feels positively incestuous. There’s even a neat visual motif of blood drops that represent both characters. It’s not overbearingly Freudian, but he’d enjoy dissecting it.
There are elements that don’t work. Aside from the weakness of Snow White, there’s a few encounters in the woods that feel arbitrary, never more so than in a sequence where Snow and the Huntsman leave the woods that seems solely designed to set up why they shouldn’t leave the woods. And when the dwarves (Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson) show up, they feel at times as they’re from a different movie, and there’s an odd shift in tone. We ask logical questions, like how a girl imprisoned in a tiny cell for years could even hope to run very far at all. And I have questions about the consistency of the Queen’s powers. Among other things.
But I think Snow White and the Huntsman is strong. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a rich and inviting one. How refreshing after Battleship to see a movie come along that wants to, above all, tell a story. It’s downright nice, in fact.
NOTES: Four screenwriters credited, yet no love for the Brothers Grimm?