We’re seeing a lot of Snow White lately — see also: Mirror Mirror — and I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s probably down to the backlash against women daring to demand agency over their own selves: why else would we be getting multiple renditions of an opportunistic, narcissistic career woman as, literally, evil imperial witch who does as she pleases losing out to a young innocent pure girl with no apparent desires for her own life?
It’s kinda ironic, then — in a way that perhaps we feminists should actually be pleased about — that Snow White and the Huntsman fails, in part, because its Snow White is so badly miscast. Kristen Stewart so far has not demonstrated a wide range as an actor, but some things she does very well: surliness. petulance. rage. These are not emotions that girls in real life are encouraged to express, and they’re certainly not female emotions often depicted onscreen. So to see them embodied by someone so popular as Stewart is a good thing. They’re what made her best performance so far, as teen rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways, so damn satisfying and so damn audacious. (These qualities have not, alas, served her well in the way-too-passive role of Bella in the Twilight flicks. Still: baby steps.) But even while you might expect a bit of petulant rage from a teenaged girl who’s been locked away for a decade in a tower — as this Snow White has, by her evil stepmother — this Snow is also meant to be ethereal. Like a Disney princess, even, little birdies alighting on her slender white fingers and whatnot. But there is nothing ethereal about Stewart — she is all id. And still, apparently everyone (but us) can see the inherent goodness of her Snow and her rapport with nature. There’s a bit here– well, I don’t want to spoil for those who are deeply into mythological imagery and the earthy sort of power that can come with that when it’s done right, because there is some muscle in the reveal. But the bit, in which Stewart’s Snow communes with a commanding symbol of The Forest, manages to remain only just this side of laughable, and probably only by the sheer, deep yearning on the part of the film to be Weighty and Epic.
Director Rupert Sanders is a commercial director, making his feature debut, and he’s all about “epic,” it seems (the press notes tell me this). He really really would like for you to feel the grand, sweeping, larger-than-life mythos, so much so that he borrows willy-nilly from Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, what with his helicopter shots of the many dramatic panoramas of Snow’s realm, and his intimate encounters with soulful monsters and other strange beings. But he can’t work with more than he’s been given, and the script — by Evan Daugherty, who wrote this as a spec, then got assists from John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo) and Hossein Amini (Drive) — is a mess. There isn’t a cohesive world here, as in The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, both of which Huntsman desperately evokes: instead, there’s random bits of magic and landscapes that make no organic sense but are strung together because, hey, ya gots to have snowy mountains and swampy Pits of Despair and castles on the ocean all within easy walking distance of one another in a fantasy flick.
And then there is the Huntsman — he has no given name — played with a strapping authority by Chris Hemsworth (Marvel’s The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods). The wicked Queen (Charlize Theron: The Road, Hancock) commands him to pursue Snow when she escapes from her tower, which he reluctantly agrees to do (for reasons it would be spoilerish to go into). In this pseudo Euro-medieval fairy-tale dominion in which everyone speaks with an accent that ranges from vaguely English (Stewart, Theron) to down-to-earth actually English (almost everyone else), the Huntsman sports a Scottish accent. Why? Who knows? (Australian Hemsworth’s accent work itself is fine; it just seems out of place.) Christianity makes one brief, jarring appearance, then disappears… except for a few bishop-y old codgers in funny hats performing a ceremony here and there. What do they think of the Queen’s very public, very real dark magic? Who knows?
There’s no context for anything, on scales large and small, from the jumble of unreal ecosystems that don’t sit together well down to lines of dialogue that are meant to have some resonance and can’t possibly manage it, because we have no idea where they’re coming from. Snow, free from the Queen and plotting to take back the throne the Queen stole from her father, says to an old friend she was a child with, in a place we haven’t seen before: “It’s as if nothing’s changed here.” Where are they? How did they know this place before? Why does it seem unchanged? What the hell?
If Huntsman feels overlong, it’s because it’s crammed with too much stuff for one movie, and no one aspect gets enough attention. It wants to give the Queen a backstory for her evil — even to the point that we might feel sympathetic toward her — and that ends up feeling empty. It wants to give the Huntsman a backstory for his desperation, and there’s no there there, despite one scene that Hemsworth manages to make intensely moving even without an authentic framework for it. It wants to give the inevitable dwarves a backstory for their banditry and despair, but it glides right over them. It wants to make Snow White into a Joan of Arc archetype, and yet her big speech meant to rally the remnants of her dead-father-the-king’s troops is literally nonsensical. It wants to set up a love triangle amongst Snow, the Huntsman, and her old friend, an aristocratic boy now a man (Sam Claflin: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), and can barely be bothered to let Snow herself in on the guys’ feelings. (Though it does offer a hint of a truly radical spin on this old tale, in which she rejects neither dude and accepts both into her counsel and her affections. But that would be a step way too far for a film that is far more timid than it thinks it is.) I could see this as three movies — if it wanted to ape Lord of the Rings, why not go for it? — and it could work as three movies, really allow us time to get to know these characters and their world. Huntsman tries to do too much in too little time, and ends up unsatisfying all around.
I’m being hard on Huntsman because it gets close to being great, over and over again, and then veers away. There is some real brawn here: certainly the film looks amazing, if only as a series of disjointed fantasy images, no matter that they have a gritty veracity to them. And if the notion to cast normal-sized actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones) as the dwarves is perhaps questionable, it is certainly works marvelously on a technical level. (Yet: Why aren’t they given room to breathe as characters?) I don’t hate the film, and yet I should have loved it. I wanted to feel its magic, and I just couldn’t.