Disney recently decided that two Snow White movies in one year was more than enough. Although the classic fairy tale pretty much put Disney on the map and helped birth an entertainment empire, contrary to popular belief, Snow White is not just a Disney story. While it would have been interesting to see the studio put a new twist on the one that “started it all” for them, I have to agree that two films on the same subject in one year was plenty; even if they were radically different. Mirror, Mirror was The Princess Bride version of the Snow White tale; light, fun, witty, funny, and none too serious but quite enjoyable. Snow White and the Huntsman is on the opposite end of that scale; it’s dark, twisted, very serious, rarely funny, and a version of Snow White we’ve never really seen before. But is it good?
If J.R.R. Tolkien were to have had a nightmare about Snow White and her adventures, I’m pretty sure this is what that would have looked like. Now for some, that’s more than enough of a reason to go see this film, and I don’t blame them. It’s an intriguing idea to turn the Snow White fairy tale into a sprawling, epic saga a la The Lord of Rings. There are times where this film certainly captures that spirit, and times where it tries far too hard to be Tolkienesque, which ruins things. However, that’s not the only thing this movie wants to be. It also wants to be a gritty, realistic take on Snow White a la Batman Begins. Or, it wants to be a gritty, fantastical take on Snow White a la Pan’s Labyrinth. Or, it wants to be a dark and serious feminist take on Snow White a la The Mists of Avalon. In short, it tries to be so many different things that it can’t quite do anything really well. There are flashes of a truly great and unique spin on a well-known fairy tale, but far too often it all gets muddled under the crushing press of too many aspirations.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the movie is never quite bold enough to fully embrace some of the themes or ideas introduced and hinted at. There are some really dark and truly twisted suggestions and hints made in the movie whose implications are rather disturbing; but then it pulls back and refuse to explore them any further. This could have been a very bold, and a pretty tough to view, version of a classic fairy tale, but in the end it takes a more traditional and safe route to tell its story. That’s coupled with the fact that far too often things just happen because, well, they need to. They’re not an organic part of the story or a character’s natural development, they’re just tossed in because of necessity; no preamble, no context, stuff just happens.
Speaking of which, early in the film Snow White, while imprisoned in the tower by her evil step-mother, says the Lord’s prayer (see Luke 11 or Matthew 6). It was an unexpected way to introduce the older version of the character of Snow White, although not all together surprising as this fairy tale has long had a history of Biblical parallels (the classic Disney version in particular is ripe with them). But again, nothing really comes from it. This pious expression is quickly forgotten. I once had a writing teacher tell me when writing a story, if there’s a gun in it, it better go off. So here we have Snow White saying the Lord’s prayer as way of demonstrating her purity and how different she is in character and beauty than her step-mother; the problem is, when the climatic battle arrives, this source of purity and character isn’t represented or even mentioned in any way, shape, or form. The gun never goes off. Instead, Snow White finds strength from the “inner light”, and encourages others to fan that flame. Well if that’s where she’s going to find the purity and goodness to overcome evil, why bother introducing her with the Lord’s prayer. Is she to rely on goodness from within herself to defeat evil (which is never really good enough), or on something higher, purer, and completely outside of herself for purity and goodness? The latter would have certainly made for a bolder, far more interesting, unique take on things, whereas going with the former is the safer, well-trodden path the film chooses to follow instead. Too bad.
Speaking of good versus evil, Charlize Theron is evil in this movie. There are times where it goes a little over-the-top, but most of the time it’s a disturbingly effective portrayal of evil incarnate. Oddly, there are some attempts to make her character more sympathetic that come far too late in the movie and don’t really add anything to the character. She’s bad, and she has a good reason to be bad, albeit one that’s been taken to an extreme extreme; they just should have left it at that. In any event, it’s a good performance by Theron. As for Bella, er, Kristen Stewart, she doesn’t stray too far from what she’s done in the Twilight films. There are flashes and glimpses of possibilities beyond that character, but far too often she’s just Bella in armor. Chris Hemsworth does what he can with what he’s given, but like some much of this movie, the possibilities for a rich and complicated character are truncated for what’s more expedient in getting the story where it needs to go.
Snow White and the Huntsman is certainly a unique take on the classic fairy tale, one that can’t quite decide what it wants to do with this very familiar story; and that’s it’s downfall. It’s a good movie that could have truly been original and great, but shies away from that by often playing it too safe with some pretty choppy story telling. The previews are intriguing, I know, and the movie itself is rather intriguing, but more so for what it could have been and almost was, instead of for what it is. Also, just because the name Snow White is in the title doesn’t mean this is a kid’s movie. It’s dark, gritty, twisted, and sometimes even a bit disturbing; a Disney fairy tale this ain’t.