My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 96, Snow White & the Huntsman

96 – Snow White & the Huntsman:
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So here’s the first fantasy film on my list. And I assure you, it will be the first of many. I make no secret of the fact that I love the fantasy genre, even though I’ll admit it’s an acquired taste for many. Fantasy as a genre is a lot like comedy, in the sense that it’s often looked down on. When the awards come around, fantasy usually gets nominations in the technical categories and that’s about it. I can recall talking films in a group a few months ago and one guy took special time to wrinkle his nose and say to me “I bet Lord of the Rings is your favourite movie” in a tone that suggested I should feel the greatest shame. I can see where some of the snobbery comes from. After all there are plenty of fantasy features out there that exchange plot and characterisation for CGI effects and mindless action scenes. But to argue the opposite, there are just as many Oscar Bait dramas out there that exchange good story telling for failsafe tactics to nab as many awards as possible. So personally I always look forward to seeing if a director can try to build an interesting world and really show off his or her imagination in a fantasy film. And if they succeed then you can be sure I’ll praise them for it. So I don’t think I need to tell y’all what I think of Rupert Sanders’s Snow White & the Huntsman.

Before we actually watch the movie, I feel as if we need a brief background on fairy tales in general. Most kids grow up with them, or at least are exposed to them in some way. Some of these classic tales can be dated as far back as four thousand years – Cinderella for example can be traced to Ancient China. The fairy tales of those days were often dark and violent stories that served to warn kids about the dangers out there. When the Brothers Grimm got hold of the stories in the 1800s, they softened them – turning the various evil mothers into wicked stepmothers and sometimes adding happier endings, but the tales still remained darker than we’d expect. When Disney took off in the 20th century, fairy tales suddenly became associated with their lighter and happier versions. But around the time Lord of the Rings became a success, people began looking to fairy tales for inspiration yet again. We’ve got movies such as Enchanted, Mirror Mirror, Shrek, Hoodwinked etc. parodying them, or else darker retellings such as Maleficent and the TV shows Grimm and Once Upon A Time. There definitely seems to be something about fairy tales in general that resonates with the general public. Maybe it’s because they evoke memories of our childhoods, or else the innocence in them appeals to us. But whatever the case, fairy tales remain a successful medium and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.

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The movie opens as we expect a Snow White tale to: with a young queen pricking her finger. As the drops of blood fall onto the snow, she wishes for a child with skin white as the snow, lips red as blood and hair black as a raven’s wing. And since she’s immediately rewarded with such a daughter, methinks she should have tried wishing for something like a speedboat as well. The princess is named Snow White and she’s lucky enough to get a couple scenes with her mother, establishing her as a kind-hearted soul, before the queen perishes in a cold winter. Is this a bad time to mention that the queen was played by the director’s wife? As in the same wife he cheated on with the very actress playing her daughter in this film.

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An invading army takes advantage of the king’s grief. His majesty engages them in battle to find that they shatter into shards of glass when they’re defeated. What the H-E-double hockey sticks? Anyway the glass army is defeated, and the king finds one of their prisoners: a beautiful young woman with hair the colour of the sun (Charlize Theron). She’s named Ravenna, which I assume is the medieval equivalent of naming an albino girl ‘Sooty’. But she’s so beautiful that the king takes her to be his second wife. Cut to Ravenna and Snow White talking, complimenting each other’s beauty. Ravenna remarks that she thinks the two of them are sisters in a way. I’m sure they’ll be the best of friends.

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Alas then comes the wedding night. While in bed with the king, Ravenna claims she was ruined by a king like him once. He had replaced his elderly queen with someone younger and prettier. Ravenna theorises that she too would have been replaced in time. So she pre-empted that king by killing him. Which is exactly what she does to this one. It turns out she had been leading the army that invaded in the first place. And this was all part of a gambit to get inside the castle and bring the real army in. While I will say that Ravenna’s little rant before killing the king doesn’t do much for the feminist movement, her results speak for themselves.

The young princess wakes up in the night and sees her dead father. Ravenna clearly sees her and yet allows her to run at first. Snow tries to run to her friend William but they’re separated, and the girl remains inside the castle walls. Inside Ravenna’s throne room, it’s time to meet her Magic Mirror. It takes the form of a cloaked figure made up of molten gold. Throughout the film it seems as if they’re trying to imply that the mirror could just be a hallucination of Ravenna’s; she always has to be alone when she speaks to it, and it doesn’t demonstrate the omniscient power of the more famous mirrors. Some have interpreted this as a hint that even though Ravenna despises men, she still in some way seeks their approval. While that’s not the most feminist interpretation, it’s one I actually really like.

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Fast forward several years and it appears that Ravenna is such a toxic ruler that she literally drains the life out of everything around her. All this time, Snow White is kept locked in a high tower. And by this time, she’s been replaced by…

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I feel as if I need to take another detour from the movie to talk a bit about our lead actress. Kristen Stewart’s career began respectably in 2002 when she played Jodie Foster’s daughter in the thriller Panic Room. She had no problem getting work in various indie films, until her big break the 2008 paranormal romance Twilight. Unfortunately this international attention brought with it a lot of rather undeserved backlash. Kristen Stewart got a reputation for being an emotionless robotic actress and haters began to associate her with the very character she played. As far as they were concerned, Kristen Stewart herself was the unlikeable Mary Sue who had no motivations other than marrying a psychotic vampire. But the thing is that Kristen Stewart is not a bad actress at all. Literally every review of anything made after Twilight will express shock at Stewart’s performance. Watch her in The Cake Eaters, On The Road, The Runaways or anything besides Twilight. Her main problem in the latter is that she had to play a character who was written to be so bland and nondescript that it’s impossible to actually do anything to save her. Bella Swan was essentially meant to be someone the reader could imagine themselves as, and thus fantasise about being stalked by Edward Cullen. So with that being all Stewart had to work with, does her performance in Twilight surprise you?

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Pictured: what Stewart looks like when she does care.

Anyway we quickly see that, despite Snow White being locked in a tower for several years, she’s still held onto her kind heart. She comforts a young girl called Greta, who is brought into the cell next to hers. Cut to Ravenna bathing in a tub of milk – which is then poured out the castle gutters for the peasants to drink. I assume this is a nod to Cleopatra, who famously took baths in donkey milk as a beauty regiment. But more importantly, two rebels are brought before the Queen once she’s dressed. The younger of the two has the guts to stab her right there on the spot. But since we’re only sixteen minutes into the movie, you can guess Ravenna won’t be brought down that easily. She kills the man but spares his father, sending him back to the Duke organising the insurgence.

Ravenna is troubled to see that she looks slightly older. I assume that a lot of people do have trouble with the fact that her motivation involves staying young and beautiful. But unfortunately that’s really the whole point of Snow White. If you adapt that fairy tale, then you need a villain who obsesses over her beauty. If the Evil Queen isn’t vain, then it’s not Snow White you’re watching. You can at least argue that Ravenna’s motivation for trying to keep her youth isn’t just vanity; she wants to remain immortal and thus continue to conquer all these kingdoms. I’ll admit that Once Upon A Time gave their Evil Queen a much better backstory, but I’m on board with Ravenna’s. After all, being feminist doesn’t automatically make something good. Maleficent is technically feminist but lord knows it wasn’t good. We’re twenty minutes into the film and Ravenna is now developed as a villain, and I actually quite like her. Charlize Theron’s performance is quite a sight to behold. At times it veers close to Faye Dunaway in that movie we’re all very familiar with. But you can tell that Ms Theron is having such a good time playing Ravenna – and it just works. It’s hard to explain but Charlize Theron is wickedly entertaining as our villainess. It’s very similar to Lucy Lawless and her fun take on Lucretia in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Anyway Greta is now brought before the Queen – and Ravenna proceeds to suck the youth out of her. The Magic Mirror now tells Ravenna that Snow White has come of age – and she may be the Queen’s undoing. But she is also her salvation; because the princess is of ‘fairest blood’, if Ravenna should eat her heart then she shall be immortal.

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So it’s now established that Ravenna has maintained her youth by sucking it out of others. This seems to come from the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the famous ‘Blood Countess’ – who helped inspire Dracula. During her life, she was responsible for killing loads of young women. Folklore eventually gave way to the story that Elizabeth supposedly bathed in the girls’ blood in the hope that it would restore her youth. There’s a very nice Hammer Horror film called Countess Dracula that loosely adapts the legend, and it’s worth checking out.

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As Snow White is in the tower, she sees two magpies flying outside the window. When she investigates, she finds a rusty nail outside and she’s able to remove it. This comes in handy when the Queen’s brother Finn enters her cell. He foolishly tells the girl what Ravenna’s plans are, and Snow stabs him with the nail. She’s smart enough to lock him in the cell and escape the tower. She even tries to free Greta as well. The magpies point Snow towards a sewer duct, which she uses to escape the castle. She finds a horse waiting for her on the beach. I remember mentally clapping when I saw this little sequence in the cinema. I thought having the birds mark the way was a nice little touch. She rides the horse as far from the castle as she can, but runs into a snag when she approaches the dark forest. The horse gets stuck in the bog, forcing Snow to go into the forest alone.

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Let’s face it; horses don’t do well in swamps.

Much like when this happened in the Disney version, the forest is full of all sorts of nasty things. This scene is brilliantly shot and directed as the princess is bombarded by the various horrors. At this point I really have to applaud the look of the dark forest. As its name suggests, it’s wonderfully dark and scary. Overall I feel as if it’s got the ‘Grimm’ look down. I mean when I think ‘Grimm’, this is exactly what I see. I went into this movie hoping to see a nice Grimm fairy tale visually represented, and that’s just what the film does.

 

Ravenna is none too happy that her brother let the princess get away, and Charlize Theron chews the scenery to crumbs to demonstrate this to us. She apparently has no power in the forest, so Finn has to find someone to retrieve the princess. Cut to a drunken huntsman, played by a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, getting thrown out of a tavern. He’s dragged before the Queen and offered a reward if he brings Snow White back. Ravenna claims she will bring his wife back from the dead if he fulfils the bargain. Since we cut to the Huntsman, Finn and a small army on the edge of the forest, we can assume he agreed. Snow regains consciousness just in time to be caught. Finn makes the idiotic decision to tell the Huntsman that Ravenna won’t in fact be bringing his wife back from the dead. Unsurprisingly he’s met with some rebellion. He also meets the forest’s version of magic mushrooms and goes on a bit of an acid trip, allowing Snow White and the Huntsman to escape. She quickly cuts a deal with him to get her to the Duke’s army.

Cut to the army in question, where the old man Ravenna spared brings news that Snow White still lives. This is good news to the grown-up William – who has now become an arrow firing badass, leading raids on Ravenna’s soldiers. He gets himself a spot in Finn’s army as a bowman – by shooting his current one. Did I mention that William is played by Sam Claflin? Which makes this scene very amusing when you remember what franchise he’d appear in next.

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“Go on. Try that one on me, Claflin. I fucking dare you.”

In the dark forest, the Huntsman teaches Snow to defend herself with a skill that absolutely won’t come into play later in the film. As they reach the edge of the forest, they cross a bridge but unfortunately get attacked. By a troll who’s lost in the wrong fairy tale.

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“Are you trying to say we look like goats?”

The Huntsman prepares to attack…but the troll comes face to face with Snow and backs off. Either it just didn’t want to scar her pretty face, or else it’s a sign that she may have powers of her own. After leaving the forest, they come to a village full of women. The men have all gone to war, and the women have scarred their faces to protect themselves from Ravenna. And they know exactly who Snow White is. When the Huntsman finds out, he makes to leave – feeling he’s no good for protecting her. This timed rather badly with an attack on the village. Notably despite chaos going on around her, Snow is still trying to help everyone else. The Huntsman sees the fires and runs back to help, managing to save Snow from one of Finn’s soldiers.

It’s now time for a flashback to Ravenna’s childhood. Apparently her mother was of fairest blood too, and cast a spell on Ravenna to grant her eternal life. Their village was invaded and her mother killed. Mother warns that only by fairest blood can the spell be undone. I can appreciate that Charlize Theron doesn’t ham this scene up. She just conveys genuine sadness at the tragedy in Ravenna’s childhood. Meanwhile Snow and the Huntsman are captured by forest bandits. When the two are suspended upside down, we notice that they’re rather vertically challenged. But of course these dwarfs aren’t singing “Heigh Ho” and merrily digging for diamonds. Fitting the tone of the movie, they’re bitter cynics who consider killing their captives. But one of them realises who Snow White is and they reluctantly help them escape Finn’s soldiers. The dwarfs take them through a cave to a significantly brighter forest than the one we’ve been used to. It’s here that we find the more traditional Disney entourage.

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Even the turtle.

And again following our Disney influences, we also get a little dance between Snow and the dwarfs. Snow dances with Gus, the youngest dwarf. And she’s about as graceful as you’d expect of a girl locked in a tower back when her age had one digit. But in all seriousness, I like that the movie gave its female lead a chance to be funny and drop her composure a bit. Deborah Kerr once said that Hollywood seemed to think ladies had no sense of humour – and so many writers seem reluctant to let their princesses or Ingénues kick up their heels or let their hair down. In the morning Snow is greeted by the magpies that helped her escape the castle. It turns out there were two fairies inside. She goes for a walk through the forest, taking in all the loveliness. I must say that this does make a nice contrast to the grimness of the dark forest. While the latter was more interesting visually, this is also very pleasant to look at.

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A white stag has appeared to herald the coming of the one who will heal the land from Ravenna’s poison. This is something that pops up quite a lot in mythology. White stags have commonly been associated with symbols of great joy. It makes sense, since the colour white always represents innocence – and a deer is held up as one of the most pure and graceful creatures of the forest. This kind of scene features prominently in the anime Princess Mononoke, which served as inspiration for the look of this film. So this scene is probably a nod to it.

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Things turn sour when Finn’s knights attack. But less sour when the one pursuing Snow reveals himself as William. The Huntsman then finds himself fighting with Finn. He claims he remembers the man’s wife, saying she screamed his name the whole time. I’ll leave it up for debate how you’re supposed to interpret that little jibe. The Huntsman however is able impale Finn on the jagged branches of a fallen tree. Ravenna can’t heal him and so he dies. Things aren’t looking too good on the heroes’ side, as Gus takes an arrow for the princess. Poor guy; should have known he’d be a goner after getting the most screen time with Snow. We get a surprisingly moving scene where the dwarfs sing a lament for Gus, which segues into a non-diegetic version performed by Ioanna Gika. It’s clearly trying to be “May It Be” by Enya, but it’s still pleasant to listen to. As the group travels through the mountains, William takes the time to apologise to Snow for leaving her.

Snow falls – as in the weather, not the character – and William and Snow – this time the character – have a little chat. Snow muses that she used to hate Ravenna, but now she only pities her. Presumably she’s now appreciating how bloody hard it is running a kingdom, as she then worries about how the hell she’ll be able to lead when they reach the Duke. Caught up in the moment, she kisses William. Remember that. He produces an apple, which she bites and…hold on! No…

Kudos to the filmmakers for this little stunt. The old woman was in the original script but I can see why they’d change it. Let’s face it; if you see an old woman approaching Snow White, you’re going to roll your eyes because you know what’s coming. Once Upon A Time dropped this from the story too. In-universe it makes sense. Ravenna is known to be a powerful sorceress, so a mysterious old woman offering help would seem way too suspicious. But disguising herself as one of the team members? Genius. Though you do also remember that this means it was Ravenna who Snow was kissing.

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And I also have to applaud the filmmakers for coming up with a good in-story reason why Ravenna would use a poisoned apple that Snow could be revived from. Here she still intends to eat the girl’s heart, so she needs to keep her alive. Of course Ravenna takes too long to explain her evil plan to the semi-conscious girl – and gets ambushed by William and the Huntsman. However as far as the two of them believe, the princess is now dead. And when William kisses her, she doesn’t wake up.

After a truly gross sequence of Ravenna returning to the castle in a puddle of black sludge, Snow White’s body is brought to the Duke’s castle and laid in the chapel. The Huntsman is left alone with her. He starts talking about his late wife Sara, and how much Snow reminds him of her. And losing Snow is like losing her all over again. This is a lovely scene and Chris Hemsworth tries his hardest. His line “but you’ll be a queen in heaven now” almost got there in fact. But this scene sadly doesn’t quite capture the same emotional resonance as the Disney version – which remains heart-breaking to watch even to this day. The Huntsman kisses her and leaves the room. Wouldn’t you know – it’s his kiss that wakes her up. Apparently an early draft of the script had the Huntsman as a significantly older figure – with actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Jackman and Tom Hardy in consideration. The friendship between him and the princess would parallel a father/daughter one – presumably as reference to the fact that Snow lost her own father. Thus the kiss would be more a symbol of platonic love – meaning this film could have got there before…

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You’ll find that it was actually a mermaid film called Aquamarine that first pulled the true love twist – at least in mainstream culture anyway. Snow’s revival proves pretty well-timed to the insurgence losing their faith. So what do they need? A rousing speech of course. Reactions to this scene seem to be pretty divided. Some found it ridiculous, while others found it inspiring. I can kind of tell what Stewart was going for; Snow White is portrayed as an unsure leader, so that was probably her attempt at conveying that the girl is delivering such a speech for the first time. But call it beginner’s luck, as she appears to have rallied the troops. Knowing how to defeat the Queen probably helped too.

We see a bunch of white-haired girls littering the floor of Ravenna’s chambers, meaning she’s made sure she’s all pretty for the big battle. Snow White is likewise in armour and leading the Duke’s forces to the castle. Snow also has a nifty solution for sneaking into the keep.

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The army gallops across the beach – which seems kind of dumb since it leaves them in prime position to get hit by boulders and arrows. Ravenna likewise has tar poured on them when they reach the keep. Although this artistic licence with military tactics might bother some people, let it be reminded that the film presents such tactics as bad. Snow is told to turn back, but she can’t because she’s the only one that can stop Ravenna. Snow is able to get inside, while the rest of the army does battle with Ravenna’s. They storm the throne room – where Ravenna naturally unleashes the best fantasy army the director’s imagination can think of.

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Snow meanwhile gets Ravenna to herself. And she does about as well as you’d expect of a princess who’s had minimal weapons training. But nonetheless as an action scene it’s still pretty good. Ravenna even delivers her ‘I’m awesome, you’re not’ speech while standing amid flames. You have to admit, that’s VERY badass.

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But just as she goes to deliver the death blow…Snow remembers that skill the Huntsman taught her back in the dark forest. Thus Ravenna is stabbed, and like most eternally young and beautiful villains, withers before our eyes. But we then cut to Snow White’s coronation, where we also see a shot of Greta – confirming that those whose youth Ravenna stole have been restored. As the kingdom rejoices, we see Snow share a smile with the Huntsman watching from the back of the room.

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As I said in the introduction, there is something about fairy tales that just resonates with the public. Why else would Disney classics made 50 years ago still be regular fare with today’s kids? Why else would Once Upon A Time attract legions of fans of all ages? And why else would countless retellings, parodies and re-imaginings still be done today? Even this film was released alongside another Snow White story – a comedy Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts as the queen. As far as Snow White adaptations go, this is one of my favourites. I remember going to see it in theatres with high expectations – and it met all of them. This was everything I could have wanted out of a darker and edgier Snow White spin. The film has its flaws of course, but I really think the good points overshadow them completely. This is a film that almost perfectly captures the look and feel of a classic Grimm’s fairy tale, while also updating it for a modern audience.

The film did quite well at the Box Office, and it’s the clear winner up against Mirror Mirror. It was unfortunately plagued with controversy when director Rupert Sanders’s affair with Kristen Stewart went public. It was also met with considerable post-Twilight backlash. Rather like Paris Hilton in House of Wax, it seemed as though the general public were looking for something to direct their hate onto. While some of the negative reviews were valid, I guarantee you most of them were because of the former. Since the Twilight saga ended production and Kristen Stewart made it clear how much she despised Bella Swan too, public opinion towards her appears to have softened. I wouldn’t be surprised if some reviewers take this movie out of the vault a few years down the line and examines whether the hate directed at Stewart was deserved or not. Elsewhere the film seems to have given the green light for other darker big budget fairy tales to get adaptations. While Alice In Wonderland had preceded it, we would get Oz: The Great & Powerful, Jack the Giant Slayer, Pan and eventually all these Disney remakes. Whether that’s for better or worse is entirely up to you.

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Here are the fairest grades of them all.

*Story? Nothing too major here. Everyone knows the story of Snow White and they kept it intact, aside from a bit of flavouring. Some story touches were good and others were a bit less so. As a female-led fantasy adventure, it’s better than a lot of other rubbish out there. B

*Characters? You know what – this is one of the few Snow White adaptations where I’ve really enjoyed the characterisation of the princess. They go for a feminist retelling but they thankfully make her more like Joan of Arc as opposed to Xena. Ravenna is a fine villain too. William looked quite interesting and I hope he gets fleshed out in the spin-offs. A-

*Performances? With a better story and character to sink her teeth into, Kristen Stewart shows what she can do. The British accent was also quite decent. All the rest were pleasant and enjoyable, with Sam Claflin being the stand-out. Charlize Theron was wonderfully hammy. B+

*Visuals? As I said, a perfect representation of a Grimm’s tale on the big screen. I like that the director chose to go for a Dark Fantasy setting as opposed to piggybacking off Lord of the Rings and going for High Fantasy. Loads of really creative sets and scenes. A+

*Special Effects? The glass soldiers, the Magic Mirror, the troll and the dark forest all stand out especially well. It’s good that they didn’t depend on CGI too much. The only effect that doesn’t look as solid is William transforming into Ravenna. A-

*Everything Else? Some terrifically thought-out action scenes – Snow’s escape from the tower, the fight in the forest and the final battle. B+

Continuing on with the theme of fairy tales, up next is Into The Woods.

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