Early in Snow White and the Huntsman is an intriguing moment in which Snow White (Kristen Stewart), imprisoned since childhood by the evil Queen Ravenna (Oscar winner Charlize Theron), whispers the Our Father — every word.
A positive display of Christian spirituality in a fantasy or medieval film is so rare these days that its presence (and prominent placement) suggests a thoughtful choice. Typically in such films Christianity is either absent — as in Mirror Mirror, this year’s other big-screen Snow White tale — or odious, as in Red Riding Hood, with its repulsive monster-hunting cleric and pathetic village priest.
At best, religion may be a benign ceremonial presence officiating at weddings or funerals, like the half dozen or so mitered, crosier-wielding bishops in the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman at the fateful wedding of Snow’s widowed father (Noah Huntley) and his new bride, and again at a coronation ceremony at the end. (Even in medieval films with religious themes, like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, I can’t remember a single depiction of Christian prayer.)
Alas, as Snow White and the Huntsman plays out, that early prayer seems more a curiosity than a clue, perhaps meant to suggest Snow’s purity, but not connecting to any larger religious interest or theme. A slain character’s body is burned on a pyre — not a traditionally Christian form of burial — and instead of a token prayer or religious gesture, someone sings a dirge-like ditty with vague lyrics like “Dark to light and light to dark / What brings us together is what draws us apart.” Another character’s body lies in state in a Gothic hall suggestive of a church, though there’s no religious iconography. Only a rose window in the coronation scene indicates a church context.
This is a long tangent over some 50-odd whispered words in an early scene. Unfortunately, it’s a good example of the general aimlessness of the film, which seems to have some good intentions but can’t follow through. First-time feature director Rupert Sanders has a good eye and steals from the best, notably Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, but neither the sporadically striking visuals nor the earnest but dull screenplay holds the picture together.
Give it this much credit: Snow White and the Huntsman — let’s go ahead and call it SWATH — isn’t out to subvert, deconstruct or eviscerate its source material. This isn’t Red Riding Hood or Alice in Wonderland. Yes, it comes touted as “From the producers of Alice in Wonderland,” and certainly there are connections — most obviously the reinvention of the heroine as a plate armor-clad St. Joan of Arc warrior figure. And yes, as with Red Riding Hood, the shadow of Twilight isn’t entirely absent.
Once again, Stewart is the center of an incipient romantic triangle — this time between the rugged Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor) and dewy Prince William (Sam Claflin, who played the equally earnest missionary in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie). Also, while Ravenna isn’t a literal vampire, she has a similar life-force-sucking shtick (when she wants Snow’s heart, it isn’t just as evidence of her death).
So, the film transposes its story from the register of fairy tale to that of epic myth — but it’s trying for unironic epic myth, iconic good vs. iconic evil. Iconic evil: check. Iconic goodness: There’s the rub.
Young Snow’s mother (who lives in this telling until her daughter is about 9) praises Snow’s tender heart when the girl brings home an injured bird. After her father remarries, Snow’s innocence is shattered by the sight of his murdered body. No cheery singing despite being reduced to scrubbing in rags for this Snow White.
The movie misses a trick when Snow escapes from her dungeon. For a moment she comes face-to-face with a traumatized fellow prisoner, a girl ravaged by Ravenna’s magic — and although Snow has keys to the dungeons, she turns and flees, making no effort to free the other victim. Not that I blame her a bit; it’s completely understandable under the circumstances — but not exactly iconic goodness in action.
It must be acknowledged that casting is a problem. Though a likable presence, Stewart doesn’t project iconic goodness (and while she’s perfectly nice looking, any magic mirror that thinks she’s a threat to the stunning Theron needs a good Windex rubdown). To make matters worse, Stewart’s hair isn’t remotely black — or even “raven,” as Julia Roberts’ catty evil Queen snarks in Mirror Mirror. (Speaking of which, why is Theron, in every other way everything the movie needs in an evil Queen, playing a character named “Ravenna” as a blonde? Yes, yes, she transforms into what I’m assuming is an unkindness of ravens, as opposed to a murder of crows. Still: black hair.)
Hemsworth is excellent; he has a terrific emotional breakdown that shows he can be a lot more than Thor. He and Theron dominate the film; I’m not saying I wish the filmmakers had made a movie called Ravenna and the Huntsman, but I can’t deny it might have been more interesting.
There are echoes of Alice’s feminist grievances against male privilege and oppression of women. Here, though, it’s not the heroine who voices them, but the evil Queen, most prominently in a pointedly Freudian bedroom scene that could as easily be read as subverting feminism as affirming it. In a flashback, we learn that as a young girl Ravenna was initiated into all possible forms of witchery by a bitter old sorceress before her (possibly a mother or aunt). Which is the real evil: patriarchal oppression or embittered feminism? Take your pick.
What about the visuals? Well, there are some sights worth looking at, but too much of the film is mired in the bleak, gritty world of Hollywood Medieval Grunge — that generically unpleasant big-screen milieu of muddy roads, grubby villagers, rude wooden structures, chilly stone and iron, dark forests and generally pervasive earth tones. Have filmmakers never looked at any medieval art? They had pretty colors back then, I’m almost certain.
I know, I know, the land is blighted by the evil Queen’s tyrannical rule. Spare me. Gritty earth tones are what’s in, from Wrath of the Titans to John Carter. Sure, a little movie called Avatar went crazy with the Technicolor eye candy a few years ago, and some people went to see that, but who wants to make the next Avatar?
Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror may not have been any great shakes in the writing department (and neither is SWATH), but ah, visually it was sumptuous art-house catnip for the family-film crowd. I watched Mirror Mirror with eyes wide, jaw not infrequently agape. Its box office may not have been spectacular, but for what it’s worth I would 100 times rather revisit the gorgeous world of Mirror Mirror than the grungy world of Snow White and the Huntsman.
There is one sequence that goes all-out for beauty and wonder (though it’s too overtly indebted to Pan’s Labyrinth) — and it opens the door to the movie’s one other intimation of spiritual significance. (Mild spoiler warning.)
Unexpectedly, Snow finds herself in a serene fairyland called “Sanctuary,” where she stands before a majestic creature with symbolic roots in both Christian and pagan mythology and receives what we are told is a “blessing” from it. Then, alas, comes a banal act of violence that shatters both the numinous moment and the illusion of “sanctuary.” Apparently good magic, unlike bad magic, is more pretty than powerful.
In the third act, Snow gives a St. Crispin’s Day–type speech in which she declares portentously of the Queen, “I have seen what she sees. … I know what she knows. I can kill her.” The implication is that when Ravenna was preparing to absorb Snow’s life force, Snow got a glimpse of Ravenna’s soul — and her weaknesses — so that she is uniquely able to kill the Queen. When the moment comes, suffice to say, it’s a major letdown. They promised us an Aragorn-and-the-palantír moment; what they deliver is a lame crane kick.
Strangely, the romantic angle is so underplayed that not only does Snow never get a real live kiss from either potential love interest, when the film ends both potential suitors are standing at a respectful distance. I’m not pining for a return to the era of “Someday my prince will come,” but shouldn’t a story with sleeping death awakened by true love’s first kiss end with joyous union?
P.S. Walt Disney created seven memorable characterizations for his seven dwarfs. Mirror Mirror managed at least four. I would have to see SWATH again to decide if they managed as many as one.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register's film critic.
Content Advisory: Some frightening images and fantasy violence; a bedroom scene that turns murderous (nothing explicit). Teens and up.