Snow White and the Huntsman has been released on the heels of Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, the light-hearted, family-friendly, comedic take on the Snow White legend as told by the Brothers Grimm. Although they draw inspiration from the same source, you would be doing both films a disservice by trying to compare them. Let them stand on their own, and you may find that both have something to offer. Having said that, my reaction to this new film was particularly strong. Here is a beautifully dark, visually sumptuous, thematically rich film, one that certainly knows its fairytale origins but doesn’t feel obligated to adhere to them so strictly. I’m not being critical when I say that. Despite what the purists say, a little deviation never hurt anyone.
The effectiveness of the film depends not on the overall story, which has by now become quite well known, but on the smaller details that set it apart. A prologue sequence tells of a queen (Liberty Ross) that wandered through a garden in the dead of winter and noticed a single red rose that continued to thrive. Upon pricking her finger on one of its thorns and spilling three drops of blood on the frost-blanketed soil, she made a wish; to have a daughter with skin white as snow, lips red as blood, hair black as a raven, and the strength of that defiant rose. Lo and behold, she and King Magnus (Noah Huntley) soon would have a beautiful baby girl and name her Snow White. The first years of her childhood were happy. But then her mother would fall ill and die, leaving her father heartbroken.
Not long after, Magnus rescued and instantaneously fell in love with a beautiful prisoner of war named Ravenna (Charlize Theron). She appeared to have been kidnapped by a battalion of magical glass soldiers called the Dark Army, which had already conquered and enslaved several neighboring kingdoms. Magnus and Ravenna wedded the next day, only for Ravenna to reveal herself as a powerful sorceress and the vengeful leader of the Dark Army. She murdered Magnus on their wedding night, claiming that men like him only exploit women like her for their youth before discarding them. She seized control of the kingdom, locked Snow White in the north tower of the castle, and used her dark powers to drain women of their youth in a desperate struggle to remain the fairest of them all. The villagers fell into despair while the land was ravaged by her misuse of magic.
And so begins the story proper. Ravenna learns from her magic mirror that Snow White, now a teenager (Kristen Stewart), is the key to her salvation; by consuming Snow White’s heart, Ravenna will achieve immortality and perpetual youth. But the mirror warns that Snow White can also be her undoing, as only she has the power to destroy her. Before Ravenna has the chance to murder the young maiden, Snow White escapes from the tower dungeon and disappears into the Dark Forest, a thicket of dead, gnarled trees where your deepest fears are brought to life via a hallucinogenic puff of powder. Ravenna calls on someone who knows the Forest to track her down. Here enters the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a disillusioned drunk who hasn’t gotten over the death of his beloved wife.
The rest of the film involves Snow White and the Huntsman rallying against Ravenna’s tyranny, which culminates with an army riding towards the castle on horseback. Along the way, they will meet Ravenna’s wicked brother Finn (Sam Spruell), Snow White’s childhood sweetheart, Prince William (Sam Claflin), and a village of women who not only lost their men to the war but were also forced to scar themselves to avoid being captured by Ravenna and drained of their youth. They will also, of course, meet several short-statured bandits (Ian McShane, Johnny Harris, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Brian Gleeson, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost) who come to revere Snow White for being the daughter of a king they respected. They lead her and the Huntsman into a secluded area of the forest uncorrupted by Ravenna. It’s a green, sunny, magical spot where pixies zoom through the air, mushrooms have eyes, and butterflies look like leaves. This is some of the best fairytale imagery I’ve seen since Ridley Scott’s Legend.
Other elements, including the poisoned apple and the power of true love’s kiss, all work their way into the story at one point or another, albeit in ways unique to this version. That could be the reason I responded to them so well. The Snow White character benefits the most from a somewhat more modern approach; while still pure of heart, she’s no longer naïve and childlike. She has instead been transformed into a strong, able-bodied young woman, capable of selflessness but also of defending herself if the situation calls for it. Snow White and the Huntsman owes much to the fairytale that inspired it. At the same time, it owes a great deal to present-day sensibilities, which prevent it from becoming stale and repetitive. This movie is terrific entertainment.