On Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman, featuring Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides), Ian McShane (Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides), Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Christopher and His Kind), and Charlize Theron (The Devil’s AdvocateÆon FluxThe Legend of Bagger Vance), based on the German fairy tale “Snow White” compiled by the Brothers Grimm. There are a couple of scenes worthy of mentioning that I enjoyed in the story, beginning with specific imagery.

First, during the scene in which Queen Eleanor pricks her finger on a rose in winter, three drops of blood fall to the ground. Later on in the story, when Snow White kills Queen Ravenna, three drops of blood fall onto Snow White’s chest plate, signifying that we have come full circle within the story.

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This is clear given earlier Queen Ravenna killed Snow White’s father to ascend to the throne (see Feminist Frequency‘s #4), so Snow White had to do a similar act.

 

Second, the scene in which early in the film, William takes the and bites it and drops it to the ground, only to later on whither away, is foreshadowing Snow White’s bite of the apple in the film later, in which Queen Ravenna poses as William, in hopes that Snow White will whither away. I rather prefer this method of storytelling to narrative exposition.

Snow White goes through several changes in her role throughout the film: a prisoner in Tabor, a damsel in distress (see Feminist Frequency‘s Damsel in Distress series), death and rebirth (Christina resurrection), a warrior, and, finally, Queen. According to Ms. Magazine‘s article, “10 Reasons NOT To See Snow White and The Huntsman“:

Early on in Snow White and the Huntsman, our “heroine”–and I use that term loosely–played by Kristen Stewart, dives into a sewer to escape the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). Near the close of the film, some two hours later, the seven dwarfs wade through a sewer. These two scatological bookends are an apt framing device for a film that made me feel, for most of its 127 minutes, that I was wading through shit.

Let me count the ways this film failed to live up to my most basic expectations as a feminist and a filmgoer.

  1. Snow White,the most passive “heroine” in history. This version of Snow White is special not because of what she does, but because of who she is. She is full of natural goodness–healing those around her with her very presence, bringing about magic with that beautiful green-eyed gaze and pouty lip-bite. Yes, near the end she finally grabs a sword and some armor, but it’s too little, too late.
  2. The rest of the characters are flat. You don’t care about them. Not one iota. They do not rally allegiance or conjure hatred. They are merely blank, shiny chess pieces moving across a very nice filmic board that consists of a mish-mash of wiz-bang special effects and breathtaking visuals. Even the queen is one-note, with an affected voice and no motivation other than her mirror’s directives. Theron, usually a powerhouse, was either off her game or unable to transcend subpar material–whatever the case, this is no Monster or North Country. Stewart? Well, she was the typical lip-biting, face-pulling, wide-eyed, grimacing KStew. Isn’t she always?
  3. The film’s modus operandi is to vilify female aging. Of course, that’s the stuff of the original fairy tale, but this umpteenth iteration does nothing to complicate the material. It was a brilliant opportunity for a feminist critique of how we’re sold a bill of goods about beauty and immortality. Instead, Snow White and the Huntsman acts as though the desires for these things spring only from the brains of crazy women. Once again we get the same ole message that not only do women get ugly as they age, but they also get evil. The camera focuses obsessively on the Queen’s disappearing and reappearing wrinkles as she snaps from old age to youth and back. Like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the film could have taken this opportunity to satirize Hollywood’s grotesque fixation on youthfulness; instead it asks us to shudder at—horror of horrors—a woman’s wrinkled face.
  4. Race, class and gender. Not only does the film stick to Hollywood’s usual lopsided gender ratio–several men per each woman onscreen–it also creates an extremely white-skinned world. Apparently, dwarfs of color don’t exist. The class politics are also ghastly: A “noble” birthright makes Snow White automatically magical, while the poor villagers either look like they wandered off the set of Deliverance or sport a vague look of racial otherness via the tear scars etched onto their faces. (Yes, this is as inexplicable as it sounds.)
  5. The confusing attempts to “historicize” the story. Why does Snow White recite the Lord’s Prayer? I don’t recall her having a specific religious affiliation (maybe to distance her from the Islamic coding of the tear-scarred village women?) Why, like Elizabeth Bathory, is the Queen so hungry for virginal blood and milk-bathing? Who knows, but it sure makes for visually catching scenes!
  6. The evil feminist. At the outset of the film, the Queen kills her latest husband and says with vengeful breathiness, “Men use women. They ruin us and when they are finished with us, they offer us to the dogs like scraps.” The film thus sets her up as a straw “man-hating feminist” for us to revile, but her brand of feminism is one no Ms. reader would recognize.Actually, the Queen is the one to ruin people and treat them like scraps, in a decidedly un-feminist matter. Meanwhile, the film is devoid of any real feminist hero–certainly it’s not Snow White, who can’t seem to even comprehend gender. Near the end, she shouts, “Who will be my brother?” as she tries to rally her troops, many of them women, to her cause.
  7. Everyone creeping on Snow White. One dwarf gets his jollies by resting his head between Snow White’s breasts. The Queen’s villainous brother admits to watching Snow White sleep in her cell (hello Edward Cullen!) and then, after she has “come of age,” attempts to sexually assault her. (What age is that exactly? Rape-able age?) And don’t get me started on the Huntsman’s methods of seduction (see point 10, below). The film seems unaware of its own sexual creepiness–or are we to accept unwanted older male advances on Snow White asnatural?
  8. The sickeningly sweet moments. Do we need the fairies that look like miniaturized, white-washed Na’vi? Must Snow White find a white horse on a deserted beach, tame a troll with her kind gaze and exchange looks of love with a hugely antlered deer? I don’t know if there was some bestiality undercurrent I missed or if all the male characters were on lunch break, but there was a strangely large number of scenes where Snow White looks lovingly at a largemember  mammal. And a fairy sanctuary? Really?
  9. The hodgepodge of genres. Pastiche can be done brilliantly, but in this case, it feels like someone flipping at random through the movie channels. There are bits of Lord of the Rings here, touches of Harry Potter there, a sprinkling of Gladiator over here and yes, even cliff-jumping, death-shuddering, oh-you-are-my-true-love Twilight-esque moments there. It is like a spoof without any humor, unless you count one dwarf’s reply to the accusation that he’s had too much to drink: “No I haven’t, it’s the mushrooms!” Cue Snow White hallucinating in a dark forest. Sorry, filmmakers, but the Alice in Wonderland chic falls flat, too.
  10. The Huntsman. In some scruffy, unbathed, unshaven, older-alcoholic way, the huntsman is supposed to make sense as Snow White’s true love. This is hurl-inducing enough given hissexism (he scoffs that a woman could never survive the dark forest). But it gets downright creepy when he cuts the skirt off of Snow White’s dress–a move redolent of sexual assault. When Snow White responds with understandable fear, he hisses, “Don’t flatter yourself.” Yes, this is the “hero” that she fixes her eyes upon in the film’s final shot. Who cares she has defeated the throaty-voiced Queen of the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t wrinkles? Who cares that she is now ruler of the kingdom? What matters is him. He even gets a piece of the title: Snow White and the Huntsman. What the hell did he do to deserve his name up there in lights? It’s bad enough that she doesn’t even have character traits to fall back on other than being pure and pretty, now she has to share the spotlight with Mr. Pocket Flask? And on that note, it is his lesson about a knife to the heart that ultimately saves her. So, even though Snow White kills the Queen, he gave her the knowledge to do so. Her moment in armor? That was just a brief blip in drag. By film’s end, she is wrapped nicely back in a flouncy blood-red dress and will seemingly soon trip down the aisle with Sir Skirt Ripper. Gag.

All that being said, there were a few good points. Hmmmm. Let’s see. Kristen Stewart has perfect eyebrows. The Evil Queen’s get-ups are entertaining, like Lady Gaga’s if they were more high fashion, less raw meat (though the Queen does wear one gown made of dead raven). The elaborate hairstyles worn by both the Queen and Snow White would put Katniss Everdeen‘s fancy Panem braids to shame. Speaking of Katniss, Snow White also has enviable fitted leggings and thigh-high boots very similar to those worn by the Hunger Games heroine. If only Snow White had borrowed some of Katniss’s chutzpah.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Snow White and the Huntsman” reinvents the legendary story in a film of astonishing beauty and imagination. It’s the last thing you would expect from a picture with this title. It falters in its storytelling, because Snow White must be entirely good, the Queen must be entirely bad, and there’s no room for nuance. The end is therefore predetermined. But, oh, what a ride.

This is an older Snow White than we usually think of. Played for most of the film by Kristen Stewart, capable and plucky, she has spent long years locked in a room of her late father’s castle, imprisoned by his cruel second wife (Charlize Theron). When she escapes and sets about righting wrongs, she is a mature young woman, of interest to the two young men who join in her mission. But the movie sidesteps scenes of romance, and in a way, I suppose that’s wise.

The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is a heroic, mead-guzzling hunter assigned by the Queen to track down Snow White and bring her back to the castle. After encountering her, however, he is so impressed he changes sides. There is also Prince William (Sam Claflin), smitten since childhood, and the two men join in an unstated alliance.

The Queen lives in terror of losing the beauty of her youth and constantly tops up with the blood of virgins to restore it. She tests her success with the proverbial mirror on the wall, which melts into molten metal and assumes a spectral form, not unlike Death in “The Seventh Seal,” although its metallic transformation process reminds us of “The Terminator.”

The castle, which sits in eerie splendor on an island joined to the mainland only at low tide, is a gothic fantasy that reminds me of the Ghormenghast series. The Queen is joined there by her brother, somewhat diminished by his blond page-boy haircut, who does her bidding but seems rather out to lunch. Extras appear when needed, then disappear. The Queen commands extraordinary supernatural powers, including the ability to materialize countless black birds that can morph into fighting demons or shards of cutting metal.

All of this is rendered appropriately by the special effects, but the treasure of this film is in two of its locations: a harsh, forbidding Dark Forest, and an enchanted fairyland. Both of these realms exist near the castle, and the Huntsman is enlisted in the first place because he knows the Dark Forest, where Snow White has taken refuge.

In this forbidding realm, nothing lives, and it is thick with the blackened bones of dead trees, as if a forest fire had burned only the greenery. There is no cheer here and a monstrous troll confronts Snow White in a dramatic stare-down. After the Huntsman frees her from the Dark Forest, they are delighted to find, or be found by, the Eight Dwarves.

Yes, eight, although one doesn’t survive, reducing their number to the proverbial seven. These characters look strangely familiar, and no wonder: The magic of CGI has provided the faces of familiar British actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. While this technique is effective, it nevertheless deprives eight working (real) dwarves with jobs, which isn’t really fair.

The dwarves lead them to my favorite realm in the film, an enchanting fairyland, which is a triumph of art direction and CGI. Mushrooms open their eyes and regard the visitors. Cute forest animals scamper and gambol in tribute to a forest scene in Disney’s 1937 animated film. The fairies themselves are naked, pale-skinned sprites with old, wise faces. The spirit of this forest is embodied by a great white stag with expressive eyes and horns that spread in awesome complexity. This is a wonderful scene. The director, Rupert Sanders, who began in TV commercials, is clearly familiar with establishing memorable places.

As for the rest, there is a sufficiency of medieval battle scenes, too many for my taste, and a fairly exciting siege of the castle, aided by the intervention of the dwarves, and featuring catapults that hurl globes of burning tar — always enjoyable.

There is a great film here somewhere, perhaps one that allowed greater complexity for the characters. But considering that I walked in expecting no complexity at all, let alone the visual wonderments, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a considerable experience.

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2 thoughts on “On Snow White and the Huntsman

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 4 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Maid In Manhattan | The Progressive Democrat

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