“Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012): where do I begin?

21 June 2012

Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:

Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.

Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.

Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.

But let’s not be small.

Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?

The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)

In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.

Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.

So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.

It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”

Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.

Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.

Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.

I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —

— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.

There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.

In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.

What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost,  Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.

What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.

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11 Responses to ““Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012): where do I begin?”

  1. Becky Says:

    Enlightened sexism, that says it all. I don’t think a lot of men are aware that’s what they’re selling. That is, they have been so ingrained into sexism that they don’t get it.

    • Didion Says:

      I’m even willing to take a darker view of the situation — that, among other things, Hollywood execs find it useful to keep selling us the same anti-feminist crap, yet finding highly-paid male writers and directors to create it, further exacerbating the skewed gender ratios in film. But that’s a bit of my hobby-horse, isn’t it? I’m such a humorless feminist man-hater. 🙂

  2. jsalowe Says:

    (Wasn’t going to see this anyway, but just had a BLAST reliving Ken’s spittle-flecked, mud-bespattered speech. They don’t make ’em like that no more.)

    • Didion Says:

      I just love that speech. And we get to it right away in Henry V … not to mention loads of good Kenneth Branagh, at his sparkling best.

      And then there’s Kristen Stewart’s terrible speech. I keep imagining her, stuck in that paper bag.

  3. jsalowe Says:

    (Plus he was like 28, which is just astonishing.)

  4. tam Says:

    Oh dear. So there’s not a scintilla of reason to see it, even for Charlize Theron’s acting?

    I’ve never seen Hemsworth act, and I don’t relish the thought. And it sounds like Kristen Stewart’s acting skills has degenerated from too many cheapkate Twilight films, sigh…Although its a bit unfair to compare Kristen to Kenneth. She doesn’t have his grounding in Shakespearean plays.

    I’ll take your word for it and give it a pass.

    Luckily there’s lots of good films I’m waiting to see:
    1) Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister with a brilliant cast
    2) Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz with Michele Williams
    3) Of course Ridley Scott’s Prometheus even if the narrative is naff
    4) Also curious about The Woman in the Fifth with Kristin Scott Thomas.
    5) Lastly, Brave!

    …and by the way, apropos of nothing: have you ever seen Mrs. Dalloway (1997 film) with Vanessa Redgrave?

    • Didion Says:

      Why no, I haven’t see The Woman in the Fifth (and why haven’t I? will get on this). I’m so with you on all the others. I did see Take This Waltz and found it a lovely film with an unusual rhythm — and hey, Prometheus will leave you scratching your head but I still enjoyed every minute of it as I took it all in.

      And on poor Snow White and the Huntsman, I was reminded recently how much I liked Stewart in Adventureland — I really do think she’s got a neat indie charisma that I wish she’d explore more. The problem is that since she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood — a position of incredible power — via the Twilight films, she seems to be trying to re-create the same acting magic that got her so far: playing the demure ingenue.

      I don’t want to engage in a pile-on against Stewart, but I’m very sorry to see that she’s being urged to take on quite high-profile roles that offer little in terms of interesting character development. Yet when given the chance to do something completely different — play Joan Jett in The Runaways a couple of years ago — her performance was bizarrely weak, as if she were trying to merge her demure ingenue persona with a badass rock star.

      On another note, I think Brave demands to be seen this weekend, especially after seeing all those photos of the heroine’s gravity-defying red curls!

  5. tam Says:

    I might have been too harsh on Kristen Stewart. I was hoping her Twilight binge was a unavoidable (impossible to turn down the insane pay) but temporary glitch in her career. I’ve had high hopes for her since Panic Room. I’m disappointed, but its early days; as long as she doesn’t surround herself with nitwits giving her bad advice.

    Perhaps she took on this role as a palette cleanser to the dreary years of playing the insipid Bella 🙂 Maybe she thought: at last! an action heroine!…. and didn’t read the fine print of the dialogue.

    • Didion Says:

      Could well be that this will give her more freedom & more offers of great parts. I can hope. But I’m more pessimistic about her than I am about most young actors. Sigh.


  6. No offense meant since beauty is subjective, but I’m tired of online people in general spouting this nonsense about how the evil queen is actually fairer than snow white. Kristen Stewart has more charisma and beauty than Charlize Theron hands down, plus imho she succeeded in winning the beauty contest on-screen even as producers went extra lengths to spruce up Charlize and make Kristen look dirty or grimey. I never saw Twilight so I can’t really relate to the hate daggers people seem to send Kristen on a regular basis; I found her acting quite appropriate given the gritty re-telling and found myself falling for her more than if she had been the typical cheerful snow white full of rosy make-up. But yeah, I could care less than 9/10ths of commenters here will disagree with me, think Kristen is the spawn of the devil, whatever, I’m just here to represent those who enjoyed Kristen’s character and found her role, not Theron’s, carried this film. And at the end of the day, I’d much rather make out with Kristen Stewart, not someone who’s 15 years older than her and way past her prime ;-D

    • Didion Says:

      Beauty is hardly an objective science, and I always expect when I write something snarky that I’ll get responses like yours. Fair enough. But why does defending one woman’s beauty always entail trashing another’s? Really, “past her prime”? And it’s not really just a question of who you’d rather make out with — really.

      It’s true that Kristen Stewart’s acting just does not work for me. It’s not that I wanted a dolled-up, rosy make-up Snow White; it’s that I wanted her to do something different than what I’ve seen from her in every other part. Perhaps to some extent that’s subjective too; and I certainly enjoy the debate. I don’t want to just see Bella over and over again from her — that doesn’t make her the spawn of the devil but rather just boring to me.


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