I really can’t stand the Because-It-Looks-Cool School of Filmmaking, and Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders could be this year’s valedictorian. His obsession lies not with making sure his story makes sense or that his characters are interesting. His triumphant moments are when he gets to make a big show of how he dreadfully he overestimates his visual imagination. Lost in the expensive special effects and sloppy storytelling are the hints of a thoughtful subtext regarding the value of beauty in relation to a woman’s power. But for Sanders, these moments are nothing more than a way to briefly shade his antagonist before rushing back to his one-dimensional heroine and her dull journey through pretty environments.
After marrying and then assassinating the king, the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) takes over the kingdom, and imprisons the princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart). Ravenna maintains her magical powers by sucking the youth out of innocents maidens, but it’s a constant struggle to keep up her youth-maintaining mojo. However, when the Mirror-Mirror-on-the-Wall tells her that she can stay young forever if she takes the heart of Snow White, Ravenna finally decides to kill the girl who has been locked up in a tower for about eight years (thus leaving the audience to wonder why the evil queen even bothered to keep the princess alive in the first place). Snow White manages to escape (again, that only took eight years of confinement to figure out how to do so) and makes her way to the Dark Forest. Since Ravenna’s powers conveniently don’t work there, she hires a Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to find and return Snow White, and his reward will be the resurrection of his dead wife. He makes his way to the forest, reluctantly decides to protect the princess, and the two make their way across the land to the last stronghold so they can lead the rebellion against Ravenna.
Snow White and the Huntsman makes sure to have all the major markers of the Snow White fairy tale: the seven dwarfs, the poisoned apple, and Prince Charming aka “William” (Sam Claflin). The purpose of these elements isn’t to find a new spin on the story, but to wedge them into Sanders’ design of copying The Lord of the Rings. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to use Peter Jackson‘s epic as inspiration, but it’s another when you’ve stolen wholesale without any thought to why certain visuals were used. For example, Sanders takes the White Tree of Minas Tirith and slaps it on Snow White’s shield. In Jackson’s movie, the tree is the defining symbol of Minas Tirith. It doesn’t bloom, but it continues to stand tall; the city has stagnated in its fight against Mordor, but the White City has never fallen to the forces of darkness. If there’s a reason for Snow White to have the tree on a shield, I guess it’s because she brings life to nature and stuff.
There’s not much going on with Snow White. The character has three reactions to just about everything: be scared, be confused, or be awed. She’s The Chosen One who never has to wrestle with her destiny or really much of anything. It doesn’t help that Kristen Stewart has no screen presence or chemistry with Hemsworth. However, even an incredible actress would still be saddled with atrocious dialogue and a threadbare character. All Snow White has to do is simply trudge around from various locations, waste time in one village, briefly get to know the dwarfs, and then become a champion to people who have known her for all of ten minutes.
At least Ravenna has some character development going on at the other side of the kingdom, but the problem is that she’s on the other side of the kingdom. Ravenna doesn’t drive the plot forward. She sits in the castle, and throws out obstacles for Snow White to overcome. Theron deserves credit for bringing sadness and pain to the character while still making time for a little scenery chewing. However, Ravenna is endlessly frustrating because she gets a strong introduction and occasionally the plot will take a brief moment to show how she’s trapped by the sad notion of external beauty as the only real source of a woman’s power. Since this is the villain’s guiding principal, we know it’s a bad one. Almost any sensible person can tell that external beauty fades, and Ravenna is tragic because she chasing something superficial. Sadly, Sanders does not appear to be a sensible person because he shares Ravenna’s value of external beauty at the expense of all else.
And the kicker is that for all of his designs, none of it is remarkably original. Snow White and the Huntsman is essentially deviantART: The Movie. The picture is filled with pretty designs but none of them have any meaning or cause the viewer to feel anything. Go to deviantart.com and search for “Snow White” and you’ll see a bunch of drawings that show great technical craft, but are void of insight or thoughtful consideration. In an enchanted forest, he makes a tree where all the leaves can behave like white butterflies, and I have no doubt that this effect took time and money and is a tribute to the animators at whatever digital effects house was responsible. But the imagery is as shallow and superficial as the film’s villain.
Sanders came out of directing commercials, and perhaps that’s where he needs to return. Commercials don’t really need to tell stories as much as they need to be eye-catching. Snow White and the Huntsman is his feature film directorial debut, and all he wants to showcase is “Look, the studio gave me a huge special effects budget!” However, he didn’t give use that budget to give audiences a well-paced, smart narrative filled with interesting characters who draw viewers into a compelling drama. He used it to make a movie where the score swells not when a character has an epiphany of a major accomplishment. It’s when Sanders takes a step back and admires his movie’s skin-deep aesthetic.