When did everyone somehow decide that updating a classic story for modern times meant making everything as dark and depressing as hell? Don’t get me wrong; the original Grimm version of “Snow White” was absolutely gory and weird and terrible—in many accounts, the witch was forced in the end to put on white-hot iron shoes and dance around in them until she died of exhaustion—but there’s a sense of joy and wonder floating around in there, too. Why else would you bother telling a story about magic, if you weren’t going to take a moment to admire the sheer what-the-fuckedness of magical powers?
Instead, Snow White and the Huntsman is relentless in its efforts to be serious and grim. When we first see Kristen Stewart at Snow White, she is ratty-haired and somber, imprisoned in a castle keep by her wicked stepmother for more than a decade. That wicked stepmother is played by Charlize Theron in late-stage Al Pacino mode, screaming and seething and taking pointless nude milk baths when she’s not nearly breaking into tears over the crow’s feet she sees in the mirror. When Snow White escapes, the stepmother sends out the huntsman to find her. The huntsman—stop me if you heard this one—is a serious man played by Chris Hemsworth. The huntsman’s introductory scene, in which he gets into a drunken brawl, hints at a fun, Han Solo kind of carefree mercenary, but we soon learn that he drinks heavily to escape the pain and heartbreak of losing his young wife. There’s no room for Han Solos in somberville.
It keeps going like this for quite some time. By the time we get to the eight dwarves (turns out Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost are barely recognizable when shrunk down, given funny haircuts, and covered in gloomy soot), we are numb to the fact that they’re supposed to bring a little comic relief to the proceedings. Mainly, we’re numb to that fact because they’re not really funny.
Snow White and the Huntsman hints at the great, weird movie it could have been soon after the dwarves are introduced. They bring Snow White to the fairy-filled wilderness, and when compared to the gray-and-brown palette of the rest of the film, it’s like the characters have walked onto the set of a better, more interesting movie. Though things in the fairy wilderness are undoubtedly cheerier, they’re also creepy; mushrooms have single rheumy eyes, and tiny little pale fairies plaster huge fake grins on their faces, presumably to make the humans feel more welcome.
But Snow White and her sorrowful crew are immediately cast back into the grimness and the darkness and the clenched-jaw seriousness with the hokey, obvious death scene of one of the eight dwarves. That scene is immediately followed with another death scene, just to remind us of exactly how terrible and depressing and bad things can get. And then things continue like that, until the end of the movie.
The great shame of this is that Snow White and the Huntsman is beautiful. Especially when compared to the visual blandness of Battleship and Men in Black III and even The Avengers, very few frames in Snow White do not make love to your eyeballs. From Charlize Theron’s beautiful bird-bone-ornamented gowns to magical creatures made from sharp onyx shards to giant rocky trolls, this kind of inventiveness in a blockbuster should be applauded.
And the acting is generally pretty good. I’ve long been a defender of Kristen Stewart—the way her Bella devours the men of Twilight with her gaze feels fairly subversive in a Hollywood that’s used to sexualizing every single woman as a matter of habit—but she’s not going to change any minds here. The problem, I insist, isn’t with her: It’s with the way Snow White is written. She is at first helpless and speechless and sad. And then, suddenly, she has power and armor and spirit. But Stewart is never given the opportunity to show her character’s transition, which should be the most important part of the movie. The screenwriters just wriggled their fingers at the opening of the third act and pronounced that her character had suddenly become a rounded human being, and then they set back to their apparently important work of making sure that everything else was dark and dirty and depressing. You know, for the sake of realism.