SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN (AND ALSO CONAN)
What a weird movie. What a (opens thesaurus) bizarre, odd, strange, kooky, off-kilter, surreal, unusual, trippy, WTF movie. Snow White & the Huntsman is, like, memorably weird, and the fact that it shouldn’t be, that it looks like yet another generic fantasy sword-em-up on the surface, just makes its weirdness more blatant. I was surprised by the ways in which this film careens off the tracks. Almost pleasantly surprised. And the thing is, it’s not really that great a movie. But what makes it succeed and/or fail are interesting to try and pin down. Enough to make me blog.
WARNING: LATER IN THIS POST, I AM GOING TO TALK ABOUT KRISTEN STEWART IN TONES WHICH REFLECT SOMETHING OTHER THAN COMPLETE LOATHING. IF YOU HAVE BEEN WELL-TRAINED BY THE INTERNET TO GO INTO PREDICTABLE ATTACK MODE WHEN CERTAIN KEY PHRASES LIKE “BIEBER,” “DRM,” OR “KRISTEN STEWART” FLASH BEFORE YOUR PEEPERS, YOU MAY WANT TO GO READ YOUTUBE COMMENTS INSTEAD OF THIS.
Snow White & the Huntsman suffers from a lot of things, including the rep of its young star, You-Know-Who; its dipshitty title; and the fact that it had to compete with a second batshit Snow White adaptation featuring awesome costumes and an aging A-list actress as the villain. And the second one was directed by Tarsem Singh, which gives it one helluvan edge in my book. When offered the chance to see the Stewart/Theron version, my reaction was: Eh, I suppose. But the movie kind of mesmerized me. I thought it had traveled through a wormhole from the 1980s. Seriously. If you ignore the cast and the up-to-date special effects, SW&tH closely resembles one of the many dark, broody, destined-for-cult-status fantasy films that came out during the jaded decade of Reagan and New Wave. I’m talking Willow, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Legend, and on and on. None of these movies did that well at the box office but we still remember them for their weirdly grim take on high fantasy and their Bosch-inspired visuals. SW&tH captures the same vibe. By contrast, I just saw the recent Conan the Barbarian reboot, and...well, it’s heartbreaking because you can tell they were trying SO damn hard, and it’s nice that they stayed true to Conan’s roots and didn’t fall victim to the scissor-wielding serial killer known as PG-13...but seriously, the new Conan film is TERRRRRRRIBLE. I’m already forgetting about it. Not so for Snow White.
The fantasy world presented in SW&tH is one in which humanity clings to the edges of a great gray swath of untamed wilderness. Everyone is morose and often covered in mud. It’s a semi-coherent mix of historical realism and fairy-tale logic: the characters are all good Christians who believe in God and Heaven and such, yet don’t bat an eye at fairies or forest-ghouls or enchanted warriors that appear to be made of pencil lead. The Snow White story is intact, more or less, but the devil’s in the freakish details. Snow White (played by You-Know-Who) is supposed to be the embodiment of beauty and innocence, so it seems appropriate that she’s kicked around most of the time: who has time for beauty and innocence in this world of muck? The evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is indeed evil, make no mistake, but doesn’t seem to relish her evilness much. Theron is terrific here, not only because she devours every scene, but because she plays Ravenna as perpetually on the verge of a terrified meltdown. Her voice shrieks and quavers. Her face is a mask that barely holds. She’s made unspeakable deals in order to gain all this power, and she knows that one day, no matter what, she’s going to pay the piper. She rules a kingdom but really has no one to talk to other than her sketchy brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), who possibly wants to do her. (You can’t entirely blame him; I mean, I’m gay and I’d still hop into Charlize Theron’s boudoir without much coaxing). Then you’ve got the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), drunk and bitter, and the dashing Duke’s son, William (Sam Claflin), in a place where “dashing” just means “less mildewy.” Everyone is overwhelmed by the pitiless environment, which works both for and against the film.
The script is weak. The characters are mostly defined by their actions. The pacing is extremely uneven, sometimes hectic, other times plodding like a funeral procession. The Seven Dwarves...well, they’re played by vivid actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost, all of whom have their faces digitally superglued onto tiny bodies. This may be insulting to the rightly exasperated folks at Little People of America, but it adds to the film’s skewed take on reality. Most of the special effects seem to have been cobbled together from Guillermo del Toro’s recycling bin, and that’s not a bad thing. While stumbling around in the Dark Forest, Snow White is assaulted by nightmarish sights and sounds that are never quite defined; I was reminded more of Jacob’s Ladder than a fantasy. When the movie takes an extended break in a brighter, cheerier enchanted glen, we’ve moved into Miyazaki territory. And even when there’s no FX onscreen, the cast is slogging through swampy tall grass, picking their way over shattered jumbles of rock, shuffling around cheerless stone halls, and shivering in stark snowfields. The world of the film runs on bad-dream logic. I like it? Mostly? I was never bored, leave it at that. While watching Conan the Barbarian, I was frequently bored, especially during the loud parts. There were only loud parts.
Okay, I can’t put it off any longer. Kristen Stewart. It’s hip to hate her. Look, we would’ve hated on any actress playing Bella Swan, and we know it. According to various sources, Stewart does okay in certain roles. Hard to say if Snow White is one of those roles. I won’t deny she slows the movie down, and I got really sick of looking at her exposed front teeth. She does the junior-high-drama-class British accent. She does the Kiera Knightley thing where she yells galvanizing stuff at a bunch of dudes and they cheer. She gets the piss beaten out of her by Charlize Theron once or twice, and I admit, it’s fun to watch. But is she a case of bad acting, or a weak character? Snow White really is a blank slate, and that goes all the way back to the original fairy tale. She exists to have stuff happen to her. Fate is treating her like a guided missile; she’s a pawn of Forces Beyond Our Understanding, etc. Hell, she barely gets any romantic options. The lunkish Huntsman or the tremulous Duke’s son? If them’s the best prospects, no wonder Ravenna decided men were pointless.
So is it actually appropriate for an emotionally-restrained actress like Stewart to play this role, and can we forgive the movie because of the nature of Snow White’s character? I guess it works if you see Snow White as an archetype. Me, I’d rather have her display some spark, some pluck. But I don’t hate Kristen Stewart. There’s more important things to diss. Like the new Conan the Barbarian! At least Stewart doesn’t speed-blurt all her lines like What’s-Her-Name from Conan. And Stewart’s face may be stuck in an expression of morose concern, but at least it is a facial expression, which can’t be said of Who’s-Her-Face from Conan. So it’s all a matter of perspective. Also, feminism. I dislike the fact that Stewart is constantly attacked for being “sullen.” Or even “ugly.” Yes, because she has small boobs and lips -- certainly smaller than the boobs and lips of Jason Momoa, star of Conan. Purrrrr! But I like the fuck-you attitude SW&tH has towards womanliness -- not only the aforementioned lack of romance, but also the fact that Ravenna enjoys symbolically (and perhaps literally) castrating the men who fall for her, while simultaneously obsessing over her youth and beauty, terrified into paralysis by crow’s feet and thigh-dimples. In other words, the movie ain’t taking sides. Just like Kristen Stewart doesn’t seem to want to take a side in the whole stupid debate over whether women should be walking Barbie dolls or man-hating Feminazis. Women should be whatever the hell they want to be. You know, like people. And unlike the passive goo-goo eyes of Thing-a-ma-Girl from Conan.
My final verdict on Snow White & the Huntsman is that it kinda fails as a film, but I really appreciate that it tried. The filmmakers weren’t content to make Just Another Fantasy, but tried to create a world that was a little bit different from the stuff we’re used to. When we think fantasy, we think Lord of the Rings, especially now, in the age of spectacle movies with huge budgets and endless franchise potential. This take on Snow White is quite dark, kind of mean-spirited, and it doesn’t want to pander. It still panders, because the ultimate goal of a blockbuster is to make people want to see it. But there seems to be some sort of battle going on between Art and Revenue, and for once, Art almost gained the upper hand. Because this movie didn’t have to be as weird as it was. There could have been romance and kissy-faces. They could have cast an actress who’s good at smiling. The special effects could have been sparkly and Disneyish instead of amorphous and unsettling. Funny that a movie like this, which takes such liberties with the source material, comes off as stronger than the faithful, dutiful Conan the Barbarian. Maybe it’s because Conan is intended to justify the erections of young males while fairy tales, in their original form, are meant to keep children awake at night, wondering what’s lurking in the dark places of the world.
Snow White & the Huntsman wanted to be weird. And that’s better than nothing.