The Fairest At The Mall

At the end of June, I took a trip back to the East Coast to attend a conference, see my daughter, and catch up with friends and family, many of whom I hadn’t seen since I moved to Iowa. While I was in South Jersey visiting my parents, this happened:

No, I don’t mean that Charlize Theron showed up to narrate my trip in a preposterous English accent. Rather, my father and I wound up going to see a Friday night showing of Snow White and The Huntsman, starring Ms. Theron and Kristen Stewart (who apparently had some free time after lucking into a role as perhaps the least-inspiring female lead ever in the billion-dollar grossing Twilight  movies).

I go to the movies so infrequently that I wanted desperately to enjoy a “grown-up” take on the venerable fairy tale.* So I am deliberately going to say some nice things about the film before I crack my knuckles and beat it like a Mafia snitch. So here goes.

First, the movie passes the Bechdel test, the incredibly low bar suggested by cartoonist Alison Bechdel for categorizing movies that take female characters even somewhat seriously. For a movie to pass, it must 1) have two named female characters, who 2) talk to each other directly 3) about something other than a man. Stewart’s Snow White (yes, that’s her real name, not a title or a nickname) and Theron’s Ravenna talk at several key points during the film, about things like beauty and vanity and the way that a perfect face and a flawless bustline are really the best way for a girl to get ahead in this crazy medieval world.

Second, it’s at least mildly encouraging that the film features a reasonably strong female character on either side of the conflict. Snow White needs rescuing a bit more often than I’d have liked, but not nearly as much as in the Disney version. She’s resourceful and resilient, and (as writer/researcher Ben Radford noted on Facebook) she apparently has the stamina to run up several flights of stairs wearing plate mail that should weigh as much as she does. And Ravenna is a cruel, conniving monster, a slave to the literal truth that she can only stay powerful if she remains young and beautiful. So she’s either a deliberate comment on a culture that’s obsessed with female youth and beauty, or an attempt to sell makeup products to shell-shocked Twilight moms. I honestly can’t tell.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to point out that I didn’t say anything about what many other reviews have characterized as a strength of the film, that, whatever one thinks of the the caliber of the story, it was beautifully shot and visually arresting.  The thing is, the film was beautifully shot and visually arresting. And it was almost entirely lifted from other, better movies.

Its most obvious influence, cinematographic and otherwise, seems to be The Princess Bride, but there are scenes that look like outtakes from films as varied as Batman Begins,  Saving Private RyanTransformersTerminator 2Braveheart and What Dreams May Come, with unimaginatively costumed “medieval” characters greenscreened in as necessary. In nearly every scene, Theron emotes so hysterically that she could be auditioning for a remake of Mommy Dearest.** Take that mixture, force it through a small pinhole carved into the back of J.R.R. Tolkien’s skull, feed it to Peter Jackson, and you could recreate SWATH by transcribing his dream journal. The disparate shots are so obviously cribbed from other films that they don’t hang together, and the jarring transition from set piece to set piece wound up feeling like a liability rather than a virtue.

There really is the germ of a decent story buried in that mess, like a lone rose growing in a landfill. The idea of a competent, capable Snow White, who decides to go kick her evil stepmother’s ass instead of hiding in the woods, is a compelling one, and is the reason why I was curious to see the film in the first place. Unfortunately, casting Kristen Stewart (and the wet paper sack in which she keeps her charisma) as the titular character strangled that story about a clash of dynamic women in its narrative sleep.

I’m loathe to discuss the aesthetics of actresses, who, by virtue of being female and famous, are already subjected to the kind of scrutiny about their appearance that would make an experienced counterfeiter wake up in a cold sweat. Unfortunately, the whole premise of the film, aside from wringing pocket money out of disaffected teenage girls, is that Stewart’s Snow White has, at long last, grown up to surpass Theron’s Ravenna as “the fairest of them all.”

I would like to state in no uncertain terms that I do not want to live in a world where Kristen Stewart is generally considered “fairer” than Charlize Theron. And it’s not about aesthetics. These women have both played lead roles in massive Hollywood films, so they reach a certain ill-defined and impossible to reproduce minimum standard of Hollywood pretty. Whether you prefer the energy of youth to the confidence of maturity, or blond to brunette, that’s your personal preference, and I wouldn’t begin to impinge upon it.

The reason I can’t get behind the idea that Kristen Stewart is more attractive than Charlize Theron, at least in this film, is because Kristen Stewart has all the charm of wet lumber, and her Snow White doesn’t have the brains that evolution granted a small, yappy dog. I stated earlier that Theron’s Ravenna is a monster, and she is, but she’s a calculating, conniving, manipulative monster. She’s sizes up powerful men, figures out their weaknesses (which oddly enough always reside in their genitals) and exploits them. She figures shit out. By contrast, Show White’s flash of inspiration is to get everyone she knows to grab a horse and a sword and go charging off down the beach into a flurry of arrow fire. It’s got a very tiny element of surprise, but on the whole it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face.

It’s made worse by Stewart herself, who seems to have hung  her entire burgeoning career on the ability to breathe dramatically. In a scene near the end of the film, which requires Stewart to look anxious in an off-the-shoulder gown, you can literally see her collarbones disappear and reappear with every heaving gasp. If she could emote half as well with her face and voice as she can with her lungs, she might have been able to pull off the meant-to-be-inspiring, rouse-the-troops-for-a-suicide-mission-speech in an earlier scene, which instead is delivered with all the obvious passion of the teenage manager of a fast-food restaurant encouraging the people at the french fry station to step once more unto the salty, golden-brown breach. Theron only sounds two notes in the film – gale force hysteria and stony silence – but that’s one more than Stewart manages to hit.

“But what of the titular Huntsman,” you ask, mostly because you think “titular” sounds kind of naughty, and you want to see how many times I’ll use it in a single review. Chris Thor Hemsworth is serviceable (and vaguely Scottish?) as the grouchy outdoorsman sent to retrieve Snow White after she escapes Ravenna’s clutches. He isn’t as bombastic as when he’s playing the saucy Marvel deity, which is odd, since Hemsworth seems not to have gotten the memo given to the rest of the cast, which simply read act harder.

At its heart, Snow White and The Huntsman seems like a sincere attempt to rescue the essence of the Snow White mythos from its treatment at the soft, knowing hands of Walt Disney, an attempt that was ultimately derailed by a script groaning under the weight of its own cliché, direction that prizes screaming over subtlety and cinematography too blatantly lifted from other films to create a believable visual space. Although for film buffs, that last part might be a hidden saving grace; a shot-by-shot round of “spot the inspiration” might make an entertaining drinking game.

* I deliberately didn’t use the word “adult,” because we all know that an “adult” version of Snow White would feature a far more genitally-oriented cinematic experience. Although, as it turns out, roughly the same caliber of dialogue.

** A slightly more cynical reviewer might suggest that Theron’s performance must have doubled the film’s construction budget for, since she was doubtless on set chewing on the scenery before the cameras started rolling.