Once upon a time, there was a critic with a particular fondness for fairy-tale stories and for awesome action choreography involving winning. This critic was particularly excited for a movie called Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White, a young princess who is imprisoned after her stepmother, a sorceress named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) murders her father and begins scouring the countryside for young women whose youth and beauty she can cannibalize to preserve her own youth. The movie looked to be a sophisticated take on an old story, putting the princess in armor and at the head of an invading army. But Snow White and the Huntsman behaves more like an old tradition anxious about the rise of a new one than the coronation of a new moment for action heroines.
By far the best parts of Snow White and the Huntsman are those that hint at the source of Ravenna’s pathology, and at the damaging power of beauty myths. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night, her seduction turning to poison. “Men use women.” Meeting the Huntsman, Ravenna muses “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.” Later, we learn that some sort of trauma inspired an older woman in a young Ravenna’s life to turn her beauty into something more than normal human loveliness. “Your beauty is all that can save you, Ravenna. This spell will make your beauty your power and your protection.” Watching the natural lines on Ravenna’s face vanish after she sucks the life out of another young girl is Hollywood airbrushing rendered visible, an act of humanity-erasing magic with consequences both on-screen and off it. “You don’t even know how lucky you are never to know what it is to grow old,” she tells a woman whose life she’s stolen. Both Ravenna’s selfishness and Hollywood’s obsession with youth are pursuits of immortality without any sense of what life is good for.
But much like Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation of Red Riding Hood, which was advertised with a suggestion that Red herself might turn out to be the wolf (a concept adopted well by Once Upon a Time) before revealing itself to be conventional, Snow White and the Huntsman is less interested in its promising concepts than in visual spectacle and hitting traditional fairy-tale beats that could have been jettisoned. When Snow tears through the dark forest, the insects that erupt from the ground and the mists that swirl around her are repeated so often they lose their power. When she makes it to a sacred sanctuary, the movie spends loving time on rich natural wonders, like a turtle who is a walking garden, that are visually stunning, but that prove to have no relevance to the plot and little metaphorical significance. And as much fun as it is to see Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Nick Frost and others kitted up and shrunk down to size as a gang of prophesying dwarves, their main plot function is to open a drawbridge at a crucial moment. They’re there, taking up precious minutes seemingly because the movie doesn’t believe that audiences will buy Snow White without a group of small men to adore her, even if they get a Huntsman as compensation.
It doesn’t help that when the plot does get moving, it’s burdened with some deeply puzzling writing and bad casting. Snow White’s been locked in a tower for a decade and has no evident battle skills or organized base of support, but we’re supposed to believe she can rally the support of a kingdom with an incoherent rallying speech about how people have iron twisted up inside them. Ravenna, for no other reason than to increase the sense that she’s deviant, is burdened with a brother, Sam Spruell in an epically terrible wig, with whom she’s overly familiar: in their scenes together, they come across as a pair of low-budget Lannisters.
But the movie’s real failure is to develop Snow White’s character enough to make rooting for her against Ravenna feel organically exciting. As a child, her mother tells her “you possess rare beauty, my love. In here. Never lose it. It will serve you well when you become queen.” We see her play with William, her childhood friend, speak kindly to a fellow prisoner in Ravenna’s tower, and play with a child from the marsh, but these are gestures of common humanity, not of extraordinary empathy and insight. The dwarves follow her because of a prophecy, rather than on evidence, and the blessing she receives from a white hart with a magnificent rack of antlers that supposedly confirms the prophecy gives her no powers and is in recognition of no deeds — it’s just another opportunity to state, rather than demonstrate, Snow White’s goodness. “But how will I inspire?” Snow White worries at one point. “How will I lead men?” Snow White and the Huntsman would have been a better movie had its events given her, and us, confident answers to those questions rather than handing Stewart one of the most poorly-written inspirational speeches to make it into a Hollywood movie in a long time.
It’s a group of women Snow White and the Huntsman encounter living in a marsh at the edge of the dark forest who feel like a truer alternative to Ravenna than Snow White, who beats Ravenna but essentially preserves the game. These women ritually scar tear tracks into their cheeks because “without beauty, we are worthless to the Queen. It’s a sacrifice we make so we can raise our children.” But it’s only by Hollywood’s rules that these beautiful, independent women are less than lovely. Snow White and the Huntsman is on the edge of important ideas about beauty, just as it’s on the edge of a good story. But like Ravenna, it looks into the mirror for confirmation of old Hollywood standards and old stories, rather than for the truth.