When creating a new film based off a familiar folk tale, it’s important to put one’s own stamp on it. This is particularly true if there’s already a supremely famous film based on the tale, as with “Snow White”. And it’s even more true if Hollywood’s habit of dueling movies leads to there being more than one movie on the same story being released within months of each other. This was the situation in 2012, with Mirror, Mirror dueling it out with Snow White and the Huntsman. While the former was overtly a comedic take on the story, Snow White and the Huntsman took a darker and ostensibly more serious tone.
Starring Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth in the title roles, Snow White and the Huntsman is a modern fantasy-adventure movie. It’s a valid way to approach the source material, and a method that could easily produce a great film. Unfortunately, this is merely a mediocre one.
The movie’s nice to look at, but intellectually it’s a bit of a mess. There’s a joke here but I’ve misplaced it.
The movie was nominated for Academy Awards in visual effects and costume design, and it certainly deserved the nods. This is a good-looking film, with the costumes fitting the dark fantasy feel, and the special effects work is definitely impressive. And the musical score also fit the mood that the director, Rupert Sanders, was going for in the film. If I were judging it solely on technical merits, it’s a well-made film. But there’s more to a movie than just looking good. I know that is often a complaint with adventure movies, particularly fantasy adventure movies, but there’s no reason why a fantasy film can’t be smart.
And in all honesty, the writing has some definite strengths to it. There’s a good plot in here, with Snow White escaping the Queen’s clutches and having to return with an army to eliminate the usurper. It’s a different take on the fairy tale while still being recognizable as a derivation of the tale. This is how screenwriters should do things when they’re trying to put their own stamp on old folklore. “The same but different” is a difficult balancing act, but when it comes to the skeleton of the plot, Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds.
The problem arises when it comes to fleshing out that skeleton. There are times when the writers don’t seem to know exactly what they’re going for. There’s a hint of a romantic triangle between Snow White, the Huntsman (who is never given a proper name), and her childhood friend William (Sam Claflin), the son of a loyal Duke. There’s just enough of this to make it apparent, but no more. If they wanted the love triangle, they should have gone all the way with it. If they wanted Snow White to be all business and not get entangled — which is the way the film mostly comes out to — then they shouldn’t have started with the abortive romantic subplot. This “almost dealing with a subplot” issue also comes up with the nature of Snow White herself. There’s a bit about how Snow White being the fairest threatens Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) because Ravenna’s magic is dependent on her being the fairest of them all. That much is reasonably well-done, as far as fairy tale movies go. But there is also a hint that Snow White is a little bit supernatural herself, shouting down a troll and receiving the blessing of the Great Stag of the Forest. But as far as the rest of the movie is concerned, she threatens Ravenna only because she’s kind of pretty (like many viewers, I find it a little hard to say Kristen Stewart is fairer than Charlize Theron.)
It’s possible that Snow White’s specialness is the explanation for her insanely good fortune in the film, but this isn’t addressed; it’s merely the closest I can come to excusing the absurd contrivances that sometimes crop up to help Snow White on her way. How else can one explain her coming out of a sewer pipe to find a horse alone on a beach and apparently waiting for her?
That said, there are some good points to the writing as well. The Queen is not only given a name of her own, she’s given a history and motivations. She’s also given a brother, played by Sam Spruell, who is as sinister and disturbing as she is. Arguably more so, as he gets up close and personal with the protagonists more often. The dwarfs, who are often comic relief in any adaptation of the story, are handled well in the writing. Led by Bob Hoskins (with the forced-perspective and digital alteration that is the norm for shooting dwarfs since The Lord of the Rings) the dwarfs provide a lightening of the mood while not being outright comical. While none of the characters show an excess of depth, it helps make the dwarfs feel, if not real, at least as real as the other characters.
There’s also a nice set of contrasting motifs set up between Snow White and Ravenna. Snow White’s name evokes purity, and her heart is pure; Ravenna’s name evokes darkness, and her heart is dark. Snow White is fair-skinned with dark hair; Ravenna is completely fair. Snow White is visited by magpies; Ravenna associates with ravens (naturally). Kristen Stewart as Snow White underacts; Charlize Theron as Ravenna overacts.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the shrillest of them all?
The acting of the female leads is easily the biggest weakness of the film. (I stress the female leads, as Chris Hemsworth does an admirable job with his character). Charlize Theron is a skilled actress, so it’s particularly surprising that her performance doesn’t quite work here, and it’s mostly because she’s overdoing it. A bit of hammy acting is common with villains, and even laudable — personally, I find movies more fun when the actor is clearly having fun playing the bad guy. But Theron simply takes it too far. Her acting in Snow White and the Huntsman has two modes: soft spoken menace and PROLONGED SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAMING! Even Brian Blessed would be telling her to take it down a notch. Proper hammy acting gets the audience laughing with the villain; in this case, sadly, the audience is laughing at the villain. Or just covering their ears.
And then, on the flip side, there’s Kristen Stewart. This is only the second film I’ve seen her in — the first being the 2007 horror film The Messengers, where I thought she did a decent job of pretending to be frightened, but didn’t show much emotional range beyond that. The same applies here. She was believable when she was running through the dark forest, but the rest of the time, her performance felt flat. And unlike The Messengers, Snow White and the Huntsman is a film that demands more emotion from its actors than just fear. Scenes requiring anger, tenderness, or pity fall just short of being convincing, as if Stewart is thinking “angry” instead of feeling angry. It’s the difference between watching an actor become a character, and watching them merely act out a character. Stewart occasionally shows hints of falling into the role, such as when she dances with the dwarf Gus (Brian Gleeson), but for the most part, she comes across as reading cue cards. Perhaps under the right director she could become a passable actress, but if so, Rupert Sanders is not that director. And it really hurts the film when she’s called upon to inspire the people; I’d be hard pressed to think of a less inspiring inspirational speech scene.
The most powerful scene that doesn’t exceed Stewart’s acting ability.
As the Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth has co-star billing, and arguably has the most interesting character — certainly the studio seems to think so, as they’re moving forward on a sequel that, last I heard, is focusing exclusively on him (maybe it’ll be the quest for a proper name). There are moments of emotional depth for the character, some levity, and an exploration of his motivations; Hemsworth doesn’t provide any cause for complaint with his acting in any of this. But I suspect that any attachment the audience has for the Huntsman as a breakout character in the film is because he’s the most interesting character in a film filled with poorly-developed characters. It’s not that his character is particularly interesting; it’s just that the others are less so, and so the audience latches onto a “sort of good” character in the absence of any great ones.
“Sort of good” is the best praise that can be given to the film while maintaining any semblance of honesty. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it; I was entertained while it was on. But I couldn’t help noticing throughout that there were so many ways in which it could have been so much better than it was. If the writing had been tighter, if Stewart had more emotional range, if Theron had more emotional balance… there are a lot of ifs that apply here. If the sequel does get made, I’ll probably give it a chance in the hopes that the writers and director address the issues and produce a truly good film. Because there’s the heart of a good movie in Snow White and the Huntsman; it just got lost in the woods somewhere.