rhiannonlouve (rhiannonlouve) wrote,

Snow White and the Huntsman - Film Review

Last night I saw Snow White and the Huntsman at the Avalon. I now feel compelled to write at length about this experience.

Good stuff first.

Excellent visuals. Snow White and the Huntsman is a beautiful movie, and an interesting one. It takes visual inspiration from the Narnia movies, Princess Mononoke, Pan's Labyrinth, and Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, but never so much that you could accuse it of cheating, or stealing ideas. I also saw tiny nods to The Dark Crystal, and Avatar. Snow White and the Huntsman is a hypnotic and respectful blend of these looks, and manages also to portray the pretty with the genuinely frightening in a way that will scare children's pants off, but isn't necessarily inappropriate for them, per se (not a lot of gore – other kinds of scary). If you judge a movie mostly by visuals, you'll like this one.

The acting ain't bad. Even Kristen Stewart is mostly ok in it, and I quite liked everyone else. I was most impressed with Sam Spruell as the evil Queen's brother Finn. His portrayal gave the character a depth and logic that the script didn't offer him on a silver platter. He had to work hard to make his lines make sense, and he did an excellent job at twisted complexity and a subconscious death-wish. Also great were the character actors who played the dwarfs. They included Bob Hoskins, among my top three favorite actors in the world, as well as Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz fame (Danny), Ian McShane, Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, a moving performance by Brian Gleeson, and Toby Jones being sweet and funny instead of an evil henchman. If you count, that makes eight dwarfs, but I didn't mind so much.

I also liked that the film ended with Queen Snow White taking power on her own terms, rather than with her getting married and handing the crown off to some guy. The old tale is made much more appropriate to modern sensibilities by giving Snow White a set of Jeanne d'Arc armor, a modicum of combat training, and sensible, plausible reasons for her responses to the various men in her life. I give Snow White and the Huntsman high marks for feminism, including the depth it gives to the Evil Queen's vanity motivations. Instead of decrying women's vanity outright, the film acknowledges women's historical need to protect themselves with their beauty, and how ephemeral a shield that could be. Rather than vain as such, Evil Queen Ravenna comes across as frightened, driven mad by trauma and a quest for vengeance taken too far. Good stuff.

Ok, I'm done saying nice things. Let's revisit my statements above, first of all.

The visuals. I found that the Faerie realm didn't flow well with the visual aesthetic of the rest of the film. The computer-animated fuzzy-wuzzy critters didn't work for me. I'm a fuzzy-wuzzy person, in general, and I love such elements in films where they work, but they just seemed cheesy here, and this was too serious a movie for gratuitous cheese.

The unsettling aspects of the Faeries' world worked well, like the way the faeries could hide themselves inside the bodies of regular animals, and the way the faeries looked alien, sometimes adorable and sometimes uncanny-valley creepy. Of the pretty-pretty things, I did like the butterflies, and the moss-covered snake.

Overall, though, the dark and terrible magic effects seemed more harmonious with the rest of the film's aesthetic than the light and fluffy magic effects. I love The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but its visual aesthetic didn't belong in this film, no matter how nice to look at.

The acting. So, Kristen Stewart was ok, but I did still disbelieve her accent on a few lines, and note a handful of irritatingly-Bella-like nervous laughs. Not perfect, but no big deal. Chris Hemsworth was better as Thor, and as Kirk's heroic dad in Star Trek, but he was still good in this, and always nice to look at. Can't complain. Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna chewed scenery, but I interpreted this as being genuinely in-character. The Queen was occasionally melodramatic, and Theron portrayed that well. All in all, I stand by my high grade on the acting.

I do note one complication, however. The dwarfs were brilliant, but they weren't played by little people. Though described as being a different species, with implications of magical healing abilities, dwarfs in this fantasy world look like human little people (unlike the hobbits and dwarves in Lord of the Rings). These dwarfs have the faces of big people pasted on as a special effect. I note on the film's Wikipedia entry that the Little People's Association of America protested this decision, and I don't blame them. One of my brothers is a member of the LPA (actually married to the founder's daughter), and I had a pretty complicated response to this decision myself.

I adore Bob Hoskins as I said. I'm almost invariably thrilled to see him in any film. I was thrilled to see him in this one. I just . . . don't see why they couldn't have cast at least some of the dwarfs with real dwarfs. Several of them had almost no lines. Why use expensive effects to put big people faces on small bodies for such small parts? We know from Captain America that it isn't a matter of needing them to all look the same, to avoid a jarring contrast that reveals the special effect. If you really want Bob Hoskins as the old, blind seer, go for it, but little people in some of the other roles would have been easily accomplished, and no one would have noticed.

I mean no disrespect to the actors they chose. They were great, as I said. I just don't think every one of those roles was particularly challenging, or inaccessible to other actors of varying skill. And of course, there are excellent dwarf actors out there, who could have pulled off even the more challenging roles. Peter Dinklage is amazing. I'm not Verne Troyer's biggest fan, but I've seen some good acting from him. Warwick Davis has been around the block a few times. There are others. Michael J. Anderson from Twin Peaks. Danny Woodburn from Watchmen. The latter, I notice, did get cast in Mirror Mirror, the other recent Snow White movie. I haven't seen it, and it looks absurd, but hey – THEY hired little people.

It's much like the ever-prevalent issues of racist and sexist casting. The filmmakers just aren't thinking about the messages they're sending to the viewing public. I wish they would.

(and speaking of that, Snow White and the Huntsman is as guilty as the average Hollywood film of racist casting, excused, I imagine, by the “period” setting – a stupid excuse in a fantasy story. This film makes some effort on the background sexism, but women still comprise less than half the population, especially among speaking parts.)

All right, rant finished. Back to the review.

As pleased as I was with the feminist aspects of Snow White's character, I did have other problems with her. The filmmakers go too far portraying her as a savior of the kingdom, with magic powers and a great destiny. By itself, they only went a little too far with this, and I could even have found it moving . . . if Snow White had demonstrated ANY virtues beyond courage and a relative lack of blatant stupidity. She can follow an obvious clue. Good. She's willing to face down a troll to avoid leaving a companion to die. Cool. I suppose, to be fair, she's decent and unpretentious to the people around her, that's something.

But I'm brave, smart, and friendly, and I'm not doted on by magical animals, or able to magically heal just by being around people, or (that I know of) mystically endowed with the ability to break the foul curse that's destroying my kingdom. Snow White isn't a bad person, but she's portrayed as nothing special. The audience is told she's special, super amazing and OMG she'll save every one of us, but she doesn't demonstrate anything beyond being basically decent, which is true of many other characters in the film.

If her powers are supposed to stem from her beauty, well . . . that does undermine the feminist message somewhat. The film's implication, though, is that Snow White is pure of heart on a level beyond most people. That's not played out by script or plot. She doesn't turn the other cheek in a Christlike way. She doesn't have the Buddha's infinite compassion. She doesn't even particularly struggle with the violence she has to commit. Even the character's courage is a human level of courage, and has limits. I don't mind those limits. I like them actually, but courage is perhaps Snow White's strongest virtue in this film, and it alone is not enough to justify the messianic themes surrounding her.

For a princess, she's great, but honestly not as great as real world Princess Di, who wasn't, to my knowledge, the Second Coming.

Since Snow White is decent, though, the creators could have made it all ok by cooling it a bit on the predestiny shtick. I'd have preferred a movie with some sort of philosophical statement to make, but Hollywood discourages thought, especially in movies that children might see, so philosophy may be too much to ask. If the filmmakers had to strip the potential meaning from their own script, though, they could at least have stopped building up to it a bit sooner. The let down at the virtue-less climactic final solution would have been less if it hadn't been so over-hyped.

Speaking of missed opportunities for depth, though, this film had SO MANY! I suspect corporate meddling. For example:

There's a fascinating double-meaning to much of Queen Ravenna's backstory and motivation. It could have been developed into something beautiful and moving in the final fight. Instead, while Snow White is dead after eating the apple, the character is allowed to read the script and comment for the rest of the movie on things she shouldn't have known. A bit hackneyed, especially since all this happens off camera while Kristen Stewart lies still on a slab, but at least the double-meaning elements aren't abandoned outright. Snow White's last line as the Evil Queen lies dying is cruel and pointless, but it does acknowledge Ravenna's misunderstanding of her mother's prophesy. Points for effort, I suppose.

Another theme through the movie is the way that people turn on each other when they are oppressed by their rulers. This is mentioned once in the script and demonstrated visually in rather cryptic ways, but never expounded upon out loud, nor dealt with directly by Snow White herself. In addition to another missed opportunity to expand Snow White's character and include some of the virtues the script claims she has, it's also a missed opportunity to make a genuinely worthwhile statement about the human condition, and the way that both kindness and cruelty self-perpetuate.

In particular, Snow White flees through a town of skinny, filthy, and in some cases disabled people. They stare at her menacingly. She stares back fearfully. Then she rides on. Those people never show up again. She doesn't redeem or help them – not on camera anyway, and she doesn't seem to learn anything from them. She doesn't even have to fight them and/or face the inner struggle of needing to harm the very people she's come to save, because Ravenna's evils have made them monstrous. They're just a well-crafted visual with no other connection to the overall plot.

I would have preferred a story that developed those downtrodden people and gave that scene meaning. Barring that, though, the image was out of place, and contributes to the disconnect between the Faerie-realm aesthetic and the rest of the film.

The hunstman is another missed opportunity for depth. This film's hunstman character is fine. He has layers and motivation, and while his feelings for Snow White seem potentially misinterpreted under the circumstances, the intensity of said feelings seems real, human, and plausible. If I choose to interpret his love as brotherly – not a radical take on the script by any means – the huntsman is actually a well-drawn and moving character, dodging several cliches by a hair's breadth, but dodging them nonetheless.

The problem is, the huntsman in the original fairytale is in some ways deeper, and this film loses that original meaning. The old tale has a bad man, who willingly works for the Evil Queen, and who faces a moral crisis when he's sent to kill Snow White. He draws a line in that moment, for how evil he's willing to be, and he chooses a different path. He's an example of ethical grey area with potential for great depth.

This film's hunstman was never really very bad, just depressed, and he never seriously considers killing Snow White. He hates the Evil Queen from the beginning, and his arc is in re-learning to hope and strive for something greater, in the face of crushing loss. That's not stupid, as character arcs go, but it's certainly addressed more often than thoughtful portrayals of repentance and the quest of an average person to define and enact morality in a morally complex world.

Snow White and the Huntsman has no grey area characters. The closest things it has are people who take a while to fall madly in love with Snow White, and dare to express practical concerns before following her blindly. None of those people ever do anything terrible. They're all good guys. All the bad guys are either faceless or really, really bad.

I don't mind good and evil archetypes. I can enjoy a film wherein everyone is either GOOD or BAD, but I do like some grey too, especially the struggles of “sinners” in search of redemption. I like to see people choosing to make up for past mistakes. This takes a lot of courage, and it's a lesson all human beings need to learn.

More importantly, the original fairytale HAD grey area, in the hunstman, and this hunstman is, while well-written and well-portrayed, not very ethically complex.

One other element I'm not certain about is the scene where Snow White prays. I've heard Snow White pray to God in another adaptation, years ago (Fairytale Theater, with Vincent Price as the magic mirror, and Vanessa Redgrave as the Evil Queen). I adored Michael Preston as the Hunstman in that one, and I believed his conversion as Snow White begs to say one last prayer before she dies, wherein she asks God to forgive the huntsman about to slay her. In that portrayal, Elizabeth McGovern pulls off the sweetest, most adorable and innocent Snow White that has to have ever been.

The above one-hour 1980s TV adaptation is light and silly, clearly intended for children, and closely based on the old fairytale. However, it achieves its modest goals with great aplomb, and I have always loved it.

When Snow White prays in that adaptation, it jarred me as a child. I always find real world religions improbable in a fantasy setting, save in deliberate allegorical forms, like Aslan in Narnia. However, since the Fairytale Theater Snow White's prayer is sweet and simple, vaguely monotheist rather than specifically attached to a certain faith, I ultimately decided that I liked the portrayal.

In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White prays in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That's Christianity, not vague monotheism. 100% real world religion. I don't typically like that in fantasy, unless Jacqueline Carey writes it, and even there it took her a while to sell me on the notion.

The scene with the prayer in Snow White and the Huntsman is also a strange one. Snow White spends a long time lighting a fire. Then she clutches two dolls that look like fetishes or idols while she prays to the Christian God. The scene has no apparent purpose in the film save establishment of Snow White's character, and considering how little time they spent establishing that she was a virtuous or exceptional person, other than ramming it down the audience's throats through dialogue and symbolism, I find the implications unsettling. Do the filmmakers mean to imply that faith equals virtue? That's a concept I have always found dangerous. Too many terrible crimes have been committed in the name of faith. I would have preferred an establishment of Snow White's good works, rather than this odd, jarring sequence of her praying to a real world divinity.

The fetish dolls never show up again either, and are never explained.

After that scene, religion and God are never mentioned again, save that the huntsman believes Snow White is in Heaven with the angels while she is dead. Magic, however, abounds in the film. It even turns out that when magpies led Snow White to escape from the Evil Queen, they weren't led by God answering her prayer after all. They were led by fairies. When the Faerie realm gets all excited, because “he” is coming, “he” turns out to be the White Hart, a symbol associated with Herne the Hunter, a ghostly character first mentioned by Shakespeare but possibly inspired by older Celtic or Anglo-Saxon horned deities, such as Cernunnos, a god I personally revere.

In fairness to the movie, however, some forms of early Celtic Christianity saw the Christ as a final incarnation of Cernunnos, who once died to save the world every year. To such folk, Cernunnos had fulfilled his destiny in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and no longer needed to be an annual sacrifice. This brings me to one of my possible interpretations for the prayer scene.

The filmmakers could be saying that Christianity, magic, nature, and the Faerie world all go together. The White Hart and the Christian Trinity are perfectly compatible as objects of religious devotion. I've known a lot of Pagan Christians in my life, as well as Christian Pagans, and indeed, the history of contemporary Paganism arose from among members of Christian faithful during the Victorian era. If Christian compatibility with magic is the intended message, I find it a hopeful one, and lovely. The execution could have been better, but the thought is quite nice.

The other possible interpretation I saw was the deliberate relegation of Christianity to a fantasy realm. It's possible that the filmmakers intended to say that Christianity is just as silly and childish as fairies and Pagan stag-gods. If so, I find such a message pretentious and disrespectful, both to Christianity and to fairies and Pagan stag-gods. Still, the point could have been interesting if it had been portrayed better. I'd have disagreed, but I'd have appreciated the evidence of thought on the part of the writers and producers.

Finally, it's possible that the filmmakers didn't think it through and weren't trying to say anything with Snow White's jarring and out-of-context prayer, in which case I don't like the prayer scene, and I wish they'd put something else in its place, like Snow White showing compassion and self-sacrifice to help, well, anyone. And no, the broken-winged bird when she was a kid doesn't count. Most kids grow out of that “help every bird” stage, because society tells them their compassion is impractical and troublesome. There's no evidence in this movie that Snow White isn't just another of such “I was compassionate when I was six” children. I'd have liked to see her do something special, something deserving of all the hype the movie gives her.

All in all, however, despite every complaint I had, I have to say that I did enjoy the film. It's well paced, and I liked the characters. It meets the basic requirements for entertainment. I was never bored. Did I make fun of certain scenes while they were happening? Yes. Many, actually. On the other hand, I did cry a bit, during the movie's one serious death and funeral.

I think that's why I wanted to write this review. The film had so much potential for real depth and thoughtfulness, and it came in shy of what I'd have liked it to be. It was thought-provoking, but in a sort of muddled, poorly-realized “what the heck was that supposed to mean” kind of way. In that sense, especially, it reminded me of Gilliam's Brothers Grimm. I feel like I see what the film was supposed to be, and I'd have so very much adored that movie-that-didn't-get-made. The finished film is less to my taste, in the end. There's always a sadness to that, one that isn't present with either the failure or the success of a less meaningful script. It hurts more to see something fail when it actually tried.

In the end, I give whoever added the deep elements to Snow White and the Huntsman an A for effort. I'd like to see more from that person. Whoever muddled said elements up and didn't allow them to play out in the plot (possibly the same person for all I know) gets a D for general stupidity. I hope that person reads my review.

But I liked it. I honestly think most people would like it fine. It just tried to be a lot more than it was, and it failed. I prefer movies that try to movies that don't, and I give this one credit for making an attempt at serious art. If rumors are true and Chris Hemsworth's huntsman character will be wandering off into his own sequel, I'll probably see it in a second-run theater, just like I did with this one. Maybe the sequel script will be allowed to go where it means to. We'll see what I think of the film's goals once I can decipher what they're supposed to be.
Tags: bob hoskins, charlize theron, chris hemsworth, film review, kristen stewart, snow white, snow white and the huntsman

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