Snow White and the Nonsense
Once Upon a Time is a card game that my friends and I are fond of playing. Each player is dealt a hand of cards containing fairy-tale elements – Witch, Brother, Queen, This Animal Can Talk, Duel, Something is Revealed, and so on. Each player also gets one ending card, which range from True Love Had Broken The Enchantment to And The Evildoers Were Thrown Down A Well. The players collectively tell a story, interrupting each other at every legal opportunity. As an individual, you win by inserting all of your story elements into the story and finish with your ending card; for the group, the goal of the game is to tell an entertaining and coherent story, gleefully incorporating everyone’s plot elements as they arise.
Snow White and the Huntsman reminded me of nothing so much as a uncooperatively-played game of Once Upon a Time, in which players smacked down their element cards willy-nilly with little regard for the integrity of the tale as a whole, fighting to rush the story towards their designated ending before another player found a chance to rip it from their control. The result is a mostly-plodding movie, full of discombobulated fantastical elements and totally incoherent worldbuilding, which promises many things and never delivers on any of them. The characters never grow beyond archetypes, the settings are loosely tied together to suit the story rather than fixed geography, and the meandering plot manages to visit every event of the original tale without according any of them any particular significance.
In a more light-hearted movie, many of these flaws might not have been a problem. But the generally dark color palate and detailed costuming and armoring of Snow White and the Huntsman makes it seem like the movie wants to join the club of “realistic” blood-and-dirt retellings such as Robin Hood (2010) and King Arthur (2004). By asking to be taken seriously, the movie renders its gaping plot holes and unfinished themes more evident. The awesome rendering of the stepmother’s mirror, and the suggestion of dark forces behind it, creates the expectation that the mirror will play a far greater role in the plot (and especially the climax) than it ever does. The portrayal of the stepmother as a woman who seized on beauty as her only weapon could have been subversive if the movie, in avoiding any hint of empathy for her character, had not shoehorned her into the trope of the evil and seductive enchantress. The scarred women, who first appear as ninja-like river warriors, inexplicably fall apart at the first attack on their village and never play the role they could have in the film’s discussion of beauty and power. The Prince’s martial badassery at his introduction is a Chekhov’s Gun that is never used. People and creatures are constantly laying down their lives for Snow, telling her to press on because her life is more important, but we are never convinced that she deserves such sacrifice – and so she stumbles on purposelessly, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.
The metaphysical aspects of the movie cause particular confusion. We’re first introduced to adult Snow as she says Christian prayers in her dingy tower cell. Later we wander into a bright sparkly green fairyland, where the forest spirit, a white hart straight out of Princess Mononoke, bows down to Snow because she is “life itself.” I can think of several ways these elements could have been combined coherantly. There’s the King Arthur route, combining Christian and Pagan elements syncretistically – both history and myth provide plenty of examples of this approach. There’s also the Mythago Wood route, where Christian rituals cannot penetrate the forest where the old gods live, setting up a cleared land/forest dicotymy. This also has ample examples in literature. Shunning both these approaches, the filmmakers choose instead to throw in one-off instances of Christian and Pagan spirituality, leaving the audience extremely unclear on just what higher powers are at play in this world and how they fit into the magic of blood, snow, and beauty.
The rightful ruler as the life of the land is also an old tradition, and having that ruler be a woman was an interesting twist. Sadly, that twist is never brought to fruition. Snow’s status as “life itself” is used to justify people’s sacrifices for her, but is quickly forgotten by the time she regains the throne. I had hoped, too, that a character who was the embodiment of life would be able to vanquish the evil queen by more creative means than just killing a bunch of people. Her earlier expressed reluctance to kill anyone evaporates as she turns into Joan of Arc, gives a speech that is only rousing if you don’t try to understand its nonsense sentences, and leads an army to storm the castle. Just what am I supposed to believe, here? That kindness, the great beauty in Snow’s heart which sets her apart from the evil queen, is only a virtue in times of peace and when directed towards the worthy?
Sick as I am of love triangles, you might think I’d be relieved that the Huntsman-Snow-Prince triangle is little more than an afterthought. But the execution of this half-hearted triangle is so peculiar that it leaves me unclear on why they bothered with a love triangle at all. Aside from a two-second scowl over a creek-crossing incident, the triangle contains no tension at all. While the audience, knowing the habits of love triangles, may wonder how the situation will be resolved, Snow doesn’t seem to care and shows equal, mostly-chaste affection to all the men who are drawn to her. Finally, the Huntsman and Prince display so much camaraderie towards each other that if there isn’t a solid body of Huntsman/Prince fanfic by now I will be seriously disappointed in the internet.
In many ways, this movie only makes sense if you have a fairly extensive background in myths and fairy tales which lets you fill in explanations for the many seemingly random events. If you have that kind of background, though, your unfulfilled hopes and expectations will probably make you disappointed. Does that mean Snow White and the Huntsman isn’t worth seeing? Not necessarily. The movie is spectacular in its visuals and even more spectacular in its failures. It could have been so much more than it was. If you see it with the right people, the ensuing discussion is likely to keep you entertained for several hours after the credits close.