Hiding within Snow White and the Huntsman is something sleek and subversive, a forward-thinking fairy tale concerned with gender politics, something both of and for its time. It’s so well-secluded, however, that to continue on in that vein would mean entirely forgetting about the film’s title characters and focusing on its villain, which isn’t likely to happen in even the best summer blockbusters. The villain, after all, is just a crutch by which a less-than-interesting protagonist is supported, and while Rupert Sanders‘ retelling of Snow White flirts with crafting a staggeringly effective evil queen, the strength of Charlize Theron’s initial performance gives way to your usual bad guy platitudes, culminating in your typical CGI “epicness.”
Seeing as this Snow White film—the second, after Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror, which struck a different narrative tone while essentially being the same film—was launched as a vehicle for Kristen Stewart‘s post-Twilight success, something potentially subversive and powerful was never in the offing. Stewart plays Snow White as a girl awaiting purpose. Considering that she’s been locked away by the evil queen Ravenna (Theron) since the untimely death of her father, I suppose there’s no crime in being purposeless, but things could’ve been worse: A smarter, more evil queen probably would have seen to Snow White’s untimely death, too. Instead, she keeps her around in the dungeon, which is convenient considering that a magic mirror says that the key to Ravenna’s immortality lies in consuming Snow White’s heart. Unfortunately for Ravenna, White easily outsmarts the enforcer (Sam Spruell) sent to escort the long-imprisoned porcelain doll to her death. She escapes to the Dark Forest, necessitating in the hiring of outside help.
In keeping with the film’s mission to do nothing new, the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth)—the only man with the sort of experience required of a place named the Dark Forest—is your typical conflicted hero. He has no beef with Snow White, no real motive for stalking this woman through the woods, but his wife is recently deceased, the Queen is a witch, and certain promises about her ability to bring people back from the dead convince this man of inaction to act. You can probably guess what happens when it turns out that the Queen can’t bring the dead back to life. You can probably also guess whose kiss eventually breaks the spell Snow White falls under, whose kiss anoints Snow White as The Chosen One. If you guessed William (Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood friend and sworn protector, a man who manages to infiltrate the Queen’s men thanks to his deft bowmanship and irrepressible bravery, you’re only half right. Pay more attention to the film’s title.
Snow White and the Huntsman is, if nothing else, a good-looking film. When CGI isn’t being used to shrink Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, and the other three dwarves or give the film a faux-epic feel, it embellishes stunning setpieces and striking imagery, most of which has to do with the Queen and her mirror. That being said, the film suffers, like many CGI-addled movies do, from a bevy of leaden performances. Gimmickry only manages to cut through the film’s considerable muck a few times: The aforementioned scenes between Queen and mirror, and Stewart’s flight to the Dark Forest. At other times, as in the curious scene involving Snow White, the dwarves, faeries, and an unexplained white stag, it’s like Sanders is unable to see the CGI forest for the CGI trees.
But it’s the promise of Theron’s Queen Ravenna that is most distracting to Snow White and the Huntsman, and ultimately its biggest disappointment. When she tells Snow White’s father that men use women for their beauty, which has long been the only thing she could trade for power, it’s a big moment for a genre full of feathery waifs and shrewish cacklers. Her Madame Bathory routine, rather than being an ironic ritual when held against her monologue, is tinged, however briefly, with sorrow. But she becomes an all-plotting, all-screeching future pincushion as soon as the mirror tells her to eat Snow White’s heart, and the movie goes out of its way to strip Ravenna of her agency from there, not only casting the mirror as a masculine figure, but implying that the Queen may only be imagining its ability to speak.
As disheartening as the Queen’s decline is, I can’t say it wasn’t entirely unexpected. This, again, is a movie intended to launch Kristin Stewart as a franchise lead in a post-Twilight world, so its hardly surprising that the world being established here is a sort of pseudo-Twilight, with swords and sorcery substituting for vampires and werewolves. Snow White and the Huntsman achieves something moodier than the Twilight Saga on the strength of its visuals and its villain, has a much more accomplished cast, and isn’t limited by the expectations of a pre-existing fanbase. Despite that, Twilight feels oddly superior. For its many faults, the series doesn’t suffer from a cloying sense of its own importance. If it sleepwalks through its physicality and its romantic implications, it does so knowingly. Snow White and the Huntsman plods through its routine utterly convinced that, as a “dark retelling” of a popular, Disney-made fairy tale, it is doing the world a favor. Little does it realize that the plight of many Disney princesses are rarely as cut and dry as the one occupying this Snow White’s time.
Snow White and the Huntsman. Directed by Rupert Sanders. With Kristen Stewart (Snow White), Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), Charlize Theron (Queen Ravenna), Sam Claflin (William), Sam Spruell (Finn), Ian McShane (Beith), Bob Hoskins (Muir), Toby Jones (Coll), Ray Winstone (Gort), and Nick Frost (Nion). Released June 1, 2012, by Universal Pictures.