When Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna first unveils her gold, gong-like mirror and voices her famous couplet, the James Newton Howard score dramatically swells and a humanoid figure oozes out of the mirror to milk the scene for all it’s worth, as if director Rupert Sanders is telling the audience: “This ain’t no magic mirror you’ve seen before!” And alright, in my vast magic mirror experience, I’ll admit it’s not like anything I’ve seen. Sanders should be proud. But what does the film end up doing with this new humanoid mirror? Where does it go in the story?
Nowhere, really. It’s just forgotten about– though the morphing obsession pervades the entire film, whether it be the queen suddenly bursting into a flock of birds, branches shifting into hissing snakes or dark glass shards forming soldiers. Besides the obvious visual splendor of these magical instances, they also bolster the subtle suggestion that the mirror starts: keeping us on our toes as viewers, expecting things to change in this “dark retelling we’ve never seen before.” So naturally, it’s a bit disappointing when Snow White and the Huntsman ends up this overlong and sterile.
A sizable part of the blames lies in the script, which throws in promises of the dark, the gritty and the feminist and then hastily backs away, afraid to actually venture there. The story begins familiarly enough with the beautiful princess, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) left in the care of her vain and wicked stepmother, Queen Ravenna, after the death of the king. Only in this version, Ravenna is the one who murdered him to take over the kingdom. She’s not like the petty, beauty-obsessed evil stepmothers in other interpretations– beauty here is more important as a means to keeping her power and taking revenge against the kings and young girls from her tormented past. Between her low-born childhood and apparent victimization, the film hints at a more complicated conflict rather than the typical fairy tale battle of good vs. evil. But in very much the same manner that Thor treated Loki, Snow White and the Huntsman quickly boxes Ravenna into the evil category for the sake of running time and simplicity.
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After the extended prologue, the plot finally kicks into gear when Snow White “comes of age” while locked away in a castle tower, and the magic mirror promptly tells Ravenna that Snow White’s heart is the key to her (vaguely delineated) waning magical powers. For years, the queen has been temporarily restoring her youth with a consistent diet of eating bird hearts and sucking out the lives of young maidens, but by eating Snow’s innocent and pure heart, she will somehow acquire permanent immortality because, um, magic. At this point, Snow White decides it would be a good idea to leave her prison, so she escapes and is chased into the dangerous dark forest. Desperate to find her step-daughter, the queen sends her similarly unaging brother and a seasoned huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) familiar with the forest, to capture Snow. And as the classic tale goes, the huntsman finds her and is stricken by her beauty.
Only in this version he doesn’t just let her go to find the dwarves. He sticks around to protect her, lead her to safety and eventually be part of an underdeveloped love triangle that comes to include William (Sam Claflin), Snow’s high-born childhood friend. The rest of Snow White and the Huntsman is filled with a great deal of journeying, escaping and attacking, which ultimately feels long and exhausting, but also does the film its greatest service by exploring much of the kingdom in the process. Between the muddy towns, the grey castle walls and the haunting dark forests, cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Dominic Watkins create this big world with an overwhelming sense of gloom and hopelessness that easily becomes the most stirring aspect of the film. It even makes the obligatory happy enchanted forest scene feel novel and wondrous, despite the fact we’ve seen these types of places countless times before. As much as Sanders mixes and matches his visuals from the films of Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Hayao Miyazaki and a host of other fantasy classics, he knows how to fit them well into this world.
The problem is, as big and realized as the world is, the story still leaves it empty and lacking. It earns some progressive points for keeping Snow White from being defined by her romances, but goes too far in the other direction– her relationships with everyone all feel a bit superficial and forced. And for all the darkness lurking in the visuals, the plot never follows that cue. Everything about Snow White’s path feels convenient and magical. A horse just happens to wait for her where she needs it for an escape. Angry monsters are quelled by her gaze. She is proclaimed as “destined” and said to be carrying the “spirit of life” which is enough to inspire people around her and get her blessings from forest gods. Someone else neatly describes her as “her father’s daughter” and the rightful heir, which is all it takes for hundreds of men to risk their lives in revolt without much preparation. She learns how to use a knife and put on armor, so she can now ride into battle unscathed and battle the all-powerful witch-like queen. Most everything she accomplishes is through luck, the help of men and dwarves, and magical loopholes. She is barely a more active character than the helpless Snow White in the classic versions.
After seeing Daenerys Targaryen in the A Song of Ice and Fire series deal with the very same reclaiming-the-lost-throne plot and struggling with all the practicalities and doubts and dangers of the path, it comes across as a bit silly to see Snow White handle it with such pre-ordained ease– it feels like a big step backwards. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the classic fantasy tales with fate, magic, carefree heroics and black-and-white morality. There’s always a place for that and Snow White and the Huntsman is a well-made enough film that it could almost be considered a solid entry in that style. But when it purports to be a darker reinterpretation for modern audiences and it slowly becomes clear that it’s just been given a superficial and standardized re-tinkering, the magic disappears and it’s just a long trudge through the mud to the end.
EDITORS NOTE: Review written by Nerd Bastards contributor Tarun Sanker.