At the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman, it is established that the King of the land marries the Queen the day after he meets her. I was inclined to think that this was a sly mockery of the whole “we just met let’s get married” motif that runs throughout most classic fairy tales (not to mention their Disney adaptations). If I had known of the generic dark fantasy adventure that awaited me, I wouldn’t have been inclined to give the film that much credit.
It all begins well enough. After the death of the Queen, the King grieves, but gets over it pretty quickly when he finds a beautiful blonde (Charlize Theron) as a spoil of war. She appears innocent enough, but it turns out she is actually evil (gasp!) After killing the King and taking over the throne, she locks the King’s daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a dungeon. The film shrugs off the rather important question as to why the Queen keeps Snow White alive in the first place (because then she’d be dead and we’d have no movie, probably).
You know how the rest goes. There’s a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), dwarves (eight this time, providing some much-needed comic relief) and a poisoned apple. The movie, however, twists some of these familiar plot points in some occasionally surprising ways, but even these small twists can’t help the film from falling into bland familiarity.
The problem is not so much the story, but rather the way in which the story is told. In a post-Lord of the Rings world, generic fantasy just doesn’t cut it anymore. The film is constantly caught between its desire to be a revisionist fantasy and its constant reliance on the most staid of fantasy tropes. We get large battle scenes straight out of a Ridley Scott film ( flaming projectiles and tar are present and accounted for) and sweeping, birds-eye-view camera shots of traveling companions ripped wholesale from The Lord of the Rings.
It’s a shame, because the visuals are, on the whole, rapturous, particularly the scenes in the enchanted forest. Some top-notch CGI work even leads to some winking references to the original Disney animated film. They’re some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a long while; I just wish they were wrapped in a better package.
The acting is also a mixed bag. Theron is fantastic in the role of the evil Queen. Her beauty notwithstanding, she really knows how to have fun with and add complexity to a familiar character. She expertly balances the fine line between terrifying and campy, and that is meant as a great complement. Hemsworth is just playing Thor again, and Kristen Stewart does, thankfully, cut down on the lip-biting. I appreciate the film’s attempt to paint her character as a capable feminine hero, rather than a damsel in distress, but her character arc is practically non-existent. Early in the film, she tells the Huntsman that she can’t imagine ever having to kill someone. By the end, she’s killing enemy soldiers with panache. Maybe the training montage had to be cut.
There is an excellent movie here somewhere, but it is trapped in a package of bland familiarity. While it may be ambitious for a Snow White adaptation, as a dark fantasy epic, it plays it way too safe.
I’m all for violent, revisionist updates on classic fairy tales, and hope to see more in the future. Next time, though, I would appreciate a bit more originality.