I have been of two minds about Snow White and the Huntsman. Reviewers have complained that the style comes largely at the cost of substance, the feminism is muddled, Theron steals the show.
On the positive side, the movie is a fairy tale and an epic, with gorgeous visuals, and with several actors that I usually like, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost.
On the negative side, Snow White does not seem right for an epic, the emphasis on style suggests to me a de-emphasis on substance, and the movie has ties to Twilight, if only because it is generally some sort of fantasy with Kristen Stewart in the lead role.
Some days, I told myself that I would not see the movie, since I probably would not like it, and sate myself with a look at its reception. Other days, I told myself that I would see the movie, but not expect much from it, so that whatever is good about it comes as a surplus. You could call me tremulous.
I saw the movie today, and I rather think that the reviewers were wrong.
There were heaps of style, but there was not a painful lack of substance. A sort of feminism showed through perhaps here and there, but it did not seem like the movie, so to speak, wanted to state a thesis and could not get clear about what it was. Theron, whom I recently admired in Young Adult, did magnetize the screen in a way that Hemsworth, oddly enough, and Stewart did not, but she did not steal the show away from its proper center on the kingdom’s need for Snow White.
For the first two complaints, I would make the comparison to last summer’s Captain America. It was not as though there was no substance to be seen, but the style might draw your eyes away from it. The queen’s soldiers always looked spotless in their armor, as if they had just taken it out of the boxes from Weta, their leather was never worn or scuffed, and the dwarves boasted a lot of leather, heavily designed costumes, and it is difficult to see why this would be in the world of the story. Or why the Huntsman’s hair always looks wet, why Snow White wears leggings under her dress, or why she can handle herself so well as she can if she has been kept alone in a tower since the age of prepubescence. Often, a movie will have soldiers lose their helmets during a battle, so that we can tell who they are, one supposes, and in order to get the most bang for the hiring buck. But several principal characters never wear helmets with their armor at all.
I am willing to overlook all of that as petty. It is a different question why the Huntsman takes such a liking to Snow White, why so many characters naturally follow her, and why they seem to have some knowledge why she is special. Just this question, though, is answered in the movie. Her presence alleviates afflictions, certainly of the body, and almost certainly of the soul. Those around her know that she is special because they feel the difference. They could pass off the change as a strange occurrence, except that the queen is set on capturing this one young woman, who, indeed, happens to be the heir to the throne. That is how they follow her. No one loves the queen. What may seem ad hoc fairy tale logic, then, is grounded in bodily and political realities.
As for feminism, the movie never claimed to be propaganda. At best, people could have assumed that it would be, because posters and trailers show Kristen Stewart holding a sword and shield and wearing armor. Having seen the movie, I would say that there is no feminist agenda behind it. Feminism is an ideology, or several ideologies. The movie is not ideological. Ideology is a subjugation of the concrete to the abstract. The movie does not do that, and it does not subjugate the abstract to the concrete, either. It mostly takes persons in their whole concrete circumstances and lets ideas be the gentle light in which they are seen. If there is a femininity to the movie, I would say that that is it, and I do not mind that, because I find that to be true feminism and a welcome contribution to the masculine side of things, with its harsher light and typical diremption of the abstract from the concrete, and the public sphere in general.
There are two points, however, on which the movie dips mildly into a baser sense of femininity. One is the Huntsman. Hemsworth could easily seem to be a woman’s fantasy, to look at him, but as soon as he begins a speech, he shows that he makes the character a man and not a fantasy.–Also, he is a drinker.–He is something like Theron in that regard. To me, asserting a character in place of a fantasy seems daring for an actor or actress who might be wanted first for his or her looks and secondarily for his or her acting skill.
Two sore points remain for me about the Huntsman. First, I still do not believe, without saying what he does, that the Huntsman, a peasant, would make so bold as he does with a princess. Second, the love triangle, so reminiscent of Twilight, is woefully underdeveloped. I would not say “woefully” except for one shot, when the Huntsman and the other man run through a doorway shoulder to shoulder. The shot ranks them visually as equals, but there can be hardly any question that, storywise, they are unequal.
The other point of a slightly debased femininity is Snow White, although I hate to say it. Those who follow popular culture are familiar with what she has done, or not done, in Twilight, or what people say about it. Let me say this first: I have no complaints about Stewart. Positively: I am sure that she gives the performance that is asked of her. Still, the performance that seems to be asked of her is not something that I so very much want to see. The confusion might lie in this: she wants to seem like her feelings are strong, but she seems like her body is weak. Bela is worse in this regard than Snow White. She trembles, she shudders, she bites her lip, she closes her eyes, she balks, and she speaks ellipses instead of words.
Conceptually, strength of feeling and weakness of body are coordinate. The one, when shown, looks the same as the other. Factually, too, were a person’s feelings to be especially strong, then the person’s body would be weak, and the same in reverse. The way forward, then, is to move forward. I mean action: show either one, strength of feeling or weakness of body, by forward action. Snow White seems to be a step in the right direction from Bela, for the actress and for the culture at large.
As for stealing the show, the queen, Ravenna, steals the show from Stewart no more than Vader steals it from Luke Skywalker.
Final notes: interesting fairy concepts, serviceable musical score, and satisfying fight sequences.