What is Snow White and the Huntsman? It’s a pretty mediocre story about a hero who is more destined for the role than qualified, has a mythic journey, rallies an army with a single speech, and takes a castle back from an evil queen.
But it’s no more mediocre than many films bearing that description, regardless of whether the hero is a young woman or a young man.
Whether a story is well done or enjoyable, and whether it does right by women characters are two different, unconnected things, as any fan of The Lord of the Rings or Sherlock Holmes adaptations can tell you. And so one of the first questions I’ll tackle here is the basic “how’s the water” one. And the answer is “fine.” Snow White and the Huntsman plays well with the themes of beauty and power in its medieval fantasy setting. Like most movies where the hero is simply destined to save the realm, rather than being presented as having hard-won experience or skills for the job (the most recent and cast-relevant example might be Thor); the villain is really the best (and in the case of Ravenna the evil eternal-youth-seeking Queen, only) well-established character and therefore the most interesting.
But don’t expect those musings on beauty to extend much farther beyond external aesthetic appearances, despite some speeches leavied towards Snow White. She is the only character the movie states as having remarkable inner beauty (twinned along with her outward appearance, and established by wild animals liking her, ailments miraculously cured, flowers blooming, and other messiah tropes), apparently it couldn’t spare the time to make such a mention where it would be important in supporting the theme, such as with certain scarred river dwellers who we are told have abandoned beauty for safety, but who have really only abandoned beauty by Hollywood standards.
As to the movie’s value overall, it’s middling at best. There are a lot of little awkwardnesses to the movie, such as its two second act low points, which confused the pacing and left me wondering “So, are we not doing the apple thing?” a line of thinking that was said with about the same tone of voice I usually reserve for when I’m about halfway through watching The Two Towers and thinking “how have they not gotten to Helm’s Deep yet, I’ve already watched so much movie.” There’s also the Queen’s brother, who somehow manages to tap the conniving eunuch trope and the incestuous sibling trope at the same time. There’s also the weird “Make Sure Every Tiny Problem is Solved” ending (almost like R2-D2 showing up in the last scene of Star Wars: A New Hope, but more inexplicable), which clashes with the dark and serious nature of the Queen’s magic.
But by far the movie’s biggest problem is that it just hands you all of its characters as if to say “Here’s the Huntsman, you know who he is. Here’s Snow White; you know who she is. Here’s a noble born man of Snow White’s age, you should know who he’s supposed to be. Now I don’t need to spend any time making them into real characters.” A dead wife and a drinking habit are not enough to take a role out of archetype and into the realm of real, rounded characters. Most of the people in the film appear to come without names, most prominently the titular ones. Snow White is ostensibly the name of Kristen Stewart‘s character (who she plays to the best the role can offer, in case you were worried), but I’m pretty sure no one ever calls her by it to her face. It is most telling indeed, that the role of the evil queen is a named one, Ravenna, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
You’d think that if the movie was going to expect us to already know the story so well that it doesn’t bother characterizing any of its participants, it would at least do something unique with the plot to subvert expectations, but that “apple thing” arrived shortly after I wondered whether it would appear at all, and from then on out I was simply waiting for the rest of the scenes I’d seen in the trailer to show up so that the credits could roll.
The movie does have its bright and interesting points, however. Ravenna, as the only role in the movie that makes the passage beyond archetype into fully-fledged character; Charlize Theron as Ravenna, apparently told that she could only speak in either a whisper or a bellow; its visual aesthetic (aside from a weird detour revealing that the art department had either never seen Princess Mononoke or assumed no one in the audience would have either); its messy, costly method of magic making; its use of katabasis for a female character (which, okay, was probably only exciting to me); its refusal to muddy the waters with a romantic subplot; and its very end, in which an armored Snow White, filled with pity rather than rage, conquers her foe.
Some will surely argue that Snow White’s bloody but tender victory over Ravenna is something of an anti-feminist statement, that the deeds of female heroes are too often softened by the requirement of calm emotion, that the assumptions that women are the more emotional, empathetic and peaceful gender create female heroes who don’t get to be righteously angry, who don’t get pithy post-kill one liners, who don’t get to simply “kill motherfuckers” and walk away triumphant.
But to me, Ravenna’s death scene served to show something that I wish more hero fare would on a regular basis, regardless of the gender of its protagonist. An acknowledgement on the part of the hero that evil doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Specifically for SWatH, an acknowledgement by the hero (and therefore the movie) that Ravenna’s fears and dreams crafted the evil in the story, and that those fears and dreams were crafted by people in her life that she should have been able to trust. Such an acknowledgement doesn’t make her less evil as a villain, but it makes her and the character who opposes her more interesting, and furthermore it makes culpable not just the single evil person who has been disposed of by the time the credits roll, but also the society that forged such a person in the first place, something much harder to stab in the heart.