Thursday, August 30, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Mrs. Φ and I went to see our first theater movie together in years:  Snow White and the HuntsmanKMac pretty much nailed the racial allegory, and while I would like to recommend the film on that basis alone, I regret to say that it fails at basic storytelling in several critical ways.


In an early scene, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), held captive by her step-mother, recites the Lord’s Prayer, revealing herself to be an observant Christian; at the end, her coronation is superintended by what I take to be Roman Catholic prelates.  So far, so good.

The problem is that the intervening movie is filled with magical creatures like dwarves, fairies, and trolls, and paranormal activities like the life-force-sucking, shape-shifting witch dissolving into a flock of ravens.  Thus the filmmakers’ fundamental confusion about what kind of movie they were actually making.  Is it an allegory?  Is it an other-worldly fantasy?  Or is it real-life good-versus-evil set in the Middle Ages?

I don’t think these mix especially well.  Snow White is identified as the one who destined to “heal the land,” and her death and resurrection makes her kind of a Christ figure.  Which is fine in an allegory, but problematic in a movie in which Christianity is made explicitly present.

The confusion isn’t just about theological hair-splitting.  It undermines the unfolding of the story.  Snow White, escorted by the dwarves, the huntsman, and the prince, passes through the “sanctuary forest”, home to the fairies.  The fairies awaken her and lead her before a white moose-looking creature with a large rack of tree branches for antlers.  The dwarves explain to us that the magical moose is “blessing” her as it mutely tosses its head at her.

Then the moose gets shot.  And dissolves into a flock of doves.

None of this makes any sense.  We aren’t told who the moose is, nor were there any references to moose prior to the scene.  We’re given no idea as to the relationship between the moose and the witch, although there must be one because of the whole turning-into-birds connection.  We never see the moose again (or the doves, for that matter), nor is there any indication that the blessing has endued her with anything worthwhile.  And the magical forest doesn’t seem to be worth much either, considering that the bad guys can operate pretty freely there.

Contrast this with, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Granted that C.S. Lewis (or any movie based on widely read books that build anticipation around a specific story) is a tough act to follow, but . . . Aslan is given a substantial build-up during the children’s journey to his camp.  So when we finally see him, his significance doesn’t have to be narrated by a dwarf in real time.

And while I’m on it, recall the LW&W journey itself.  We meet the beavers, who explain the story.  We have a flight seen and a dramatic escape on an ice floe.  And we see Father Christmas, who gives the children the weapons they will use in the series.  All significant , well-paced events.

In Snow White, the journey is overlong and tedious.  The protagonist and her followers have to escape the witch’s henchmen several times, none of them particularly suspenseful.  They encounter a troll, which beats up on the huntsman for a while before Snow White stares him down.  Now, a competent film would have the troll, obviously impressed with Snow White’s specialness, show up later to fight the bad guys or something.  Here, we never see the troll again.

The plucky travellers get taken into an all-female village whose inhabitants have disfigured themselves so as not to have their life-force sucked out by the witch.  The bad guys show up and burn the village, and we don’t see the inhabitants again except as observers at the coronation.  The whole sequence does nothing to advance the plot.

Then we meet magic-moose (I may have these events in the wrong order, but the truth is that the order is pretty irrelevant, a bad sign), but that’s just an accident:  their actual destination is the fortress from whence the prince’s father and his band of insurgents carry out guerilla attacks against the witch.

There are other loose ends.  Somewhere along the way the prince shows up.  Now, at this point the huntsman vs. prince competition is framed, and a competent film would have the two of them hash it out.  But these two guys start traveling together and never have so much as an exchange of words, about Snow White or anything else.  Again, contrast this with, say, Prince Caspian, where King Peter’s return frames a leadership conflict with Caspian, a conflict that the movies deals with.  Here’s the conflict, no less painfully obvious, is not even addressed.

The writing was an embarrassment.  This isn’t a problem in most of the movie, since nobody has much of anything to say to anybody else anyway.  But Snow White’s resurrection should have been dramatic – it wasn’t – and her “Crispin’s Day” speech wouldn’t have inspired a little league team, let alone an assault on the witch’s castle.  It didn’t help that Kristen Stewart – quite good in the Twilight series at standing around looking vulnerable while various factions of vampires and werewolves fought over her – is out of her acting depth in this role.  (OTOH, can anybody think of a movie in which a female leader didn’t look ridiculous trying to rally troops?  Maybe Mila Jovovich . . . .)

Things to like:  the racial angle, plus the fact that the witch is openly portrayed as a man-hating feminist.  The revelation that the talking mirror was a product of the witch’s hallucination was an interesting twist.  The the movie got its money’s worth from the special effects department.  But considering the budget, couldn’t they have spent some of it on a script doctor to make the thing coherent?

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