If you think fairy tales are all about smooching a hunky prince and bumping into cute critters and living happily after, go re-read some of those old German fairy tales sometime. Most of them seem to center on the murder of children for minor offenses (like sneezing without covering your mouth, or wearing white shoes after Labor Day or whatever) in order to teach them important life lessons about being seen and not heard. Also, you can bet your sweet ass somebody’s organs are getting ripped out at some point, whether it’s because a wolf man gets hungry, or because little Gunter has to pull out his own pancreas in order to pay a ferryman to cross a river of blood or something. You know what, that last bit might actually be a lyric from a heavy metal song and not from a fairy tale. I forget. Anyway, my point still stands.
Of course, Disney came along and Disneyfied "Snow White" with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, just like they Disneyfied 42nd Street by getting rid of the crack and the hookers and the porn theaters and the hopelessness (that may be an oversimplification, but we have to point the finger at somebody). Since then, most people’s idea of what constitutes a fairy tale have been perverted ever since.
I’d do a plot synopsis for Snow White and the Huntsman, but instead I’ll go ahead and assume that you’re familiar with the original story (if not, you can just go find it online and read it while I wait; it's really short). Instead, I’ll just highlight the key differences. It might seem at first glance that the movie is a “return to the source”, and that’s sort of true and sort of not true. The movie does have a dark tone, but it is less a case of the fears and anxieties of children manifesting visually (Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves did that very well) than it taking place in a grimy dark ages-esque world where evil holds sway.
The story is mostly similar, but with a couple of key differences. For one, the evil queen (Charlize Theron) has a creepy albino brother sidekick (Sam Spruell) that helps her perform her evil biddings. I guess he presents a direct physical threat to Snow White (Kristen Stewart), and him being an albino is shorthand for evil, just as it is in most movies. For once, I’d like to see a movie where the creepy albino dude shows up and helps a little old lady cross the street. Then again, maybe if you don’t have any pigment, you are so cruelly teased growing up that you eventually want to kill people for revenge. Could be.
Anyway, the other differences are a bit more interesting. Even though the liquid gold dude that comes out of the queen’s mirror (that’s another small difference) pays lip service to Snow White being “the fairest of all”, her “fairness” is more a function of her toughness in the face of adversity. She isn’t a precious porcelain doll with milky white skin, but instead is often covered in dirt. She displays feistiness and fortitude throughout (I know “feistiness and fortitude” sounds like a terrible WWF tag team, but I’m sticking with it anyway), stabbing the albino dude with a rusty nail in order to escape. She is also forced to tough it through the sewers and later the deadly dark forest (isn't it always).
The “love triangle” between Snow White, the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), and the son of a duke (Sam Claflin) is really downplayed, and the result is that she isn’t really an object of love to be attained like she is in the original story. The biggest difference is that the movie ends with Snow White leading a Joan of Arc-esque charge against the evil queen (I’m not giving anything away, as this seems to have been the crux of the advertising campaign). These scenes feel like a forced addition (more on that later), but I guess it’s part of an overall effort to make Snow White a “feminist” heroine. Sure, that sounds like a bit of a stretch, but maybe, just maybe, a young female Twilight fan will wander into the movie and walk out inspired to take control of her own life. You gotta start somewhere I guess.
For me, the overriding effect of these changes is that it alters the notions of good and evil from the original story. Instead of a “pure” version of good and evil, the queen seems to become morally warped by her vanity and desire for power, and Snow White’s “goodness” is more of an internal toughness and quiet sense of justice. This provides a through line for the movie on which moody visual enchantments are hung. I know that last line is a terrible description, but trying to expound on “moody enchantments” is like trying to describe why a trendy restaurant has “ambience”.
However, this world is not tonally consistent, but plays more like a series of scenes linked together. There are certain scenes that seem to take place in a realistic approximation of the dark ages, filmed with a shaky cam, and then there are scenes that seem straight out of The Lord of the Rings (the troll encounter seems to be in the movie solely to help sell it as a LOTR-type fantasy). Charlize plays the evil queen as brooding and quietly spiteful early on, but later becomes a raving camp version of the character, screaming and stomping her feet. When Snow White awakens from her slumber, she immediately turns from a reserved but plucky young woman into a vocal leader of an army. The movie feels like it wasn’t really directed with any kind of guiding hand. It wasn’t surprising to find out later that this is the first film by Rupert Sanders, who had previously directed commercials. I guess he was hired to bring visual flair to the movie, which he does, but doesn’t really create something thematically and tonally consistent.
Having said that, the movie mostly works despite being tonally inconsistent. Part of the reason is that the shifts in tone are mostly small and are spaced out over the movie. The scene of Snow White playing with wood nymphs (or whatever those little guys are called) would seem incongruous if it was butted up against scenes of her leading a horse charge a la Joan of Arc, but they aren’t that jarring considering the different points at which they fall within the narrative. I guess you could argue that the movie plays like different chapters in a storybook that aren’t supposed to be consistent with each other (and maybe that’s why the movie works in spite of itself), but I’d prefer a consistent tone and a world where the fantastic elements are clearly defined throughout. The movie begins and ends as a realistic take on a fairy tale, but in between are scenes of magic spells and fantastic creatures.
Snow White and the Huntsman has an interesting variation on a well worn story at its core, and, despite a wobbly narrative and tonal incongruities, still manages to create its own world with the help of some very talented people (in terms of cinematography, production design, and even special effects). Despite my lugubrious nitpicking, I still found the movie enchanting on some level, maybe as a brooding approximation of 80’s fantasy movies (somewhere between Willow and Dragonslayer). At least it’s not Mirror Mirror, or whatever that bullshit was called.