Many critics have faulted Snow White and the Huntsman for, oddly enough, an absence of heart. This is a peculiar criticism for a movie that takes great pains to establish the emotional complexity of its characters. Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna is a bipolar mix of steely goddess and unhinged harpy. But she’s also a genuinely tortured soul, with a history of sexual and emotional abuse. When was the last time we saw an action-movie villain whose eyes filled with tears each time she embarked on a murder spree? Snow White is a triumph of feminist storytelling not because the female leads look invincible but because they are fully dimensional.
Other critics have suggested that all this feminist reimagining is eventually hijacked by an attempt to masculinize the story, literally dressing Snow White in a suit of armor. It’s true that things come to a predictable end, with a saber-rattling battle. But director Rupert Sanders didn’t turn the two female leads into men. “That happens sometimes when films turn women into action heroes,” he told USA Today. “But I made a decision not to have Kristen [Stewart] do anything that she wouldn’t realistically be able to do. The men follow her into battle because of the spirit within her.”
The men follow but do not lead in Snow White. In fact, male abandonment is a constant in the story, with both female characters continually let down by men who take off at critical moments, leaving ample backstory of how the women were forced to make their way alone in the world.
Snow, as she’s called, brings her uniquely feminine power to almost every scene. She tames a ferocious giant troll and calms not one but two skittish white steeds. She makes dolls, comforts frightened girls and generally has a magical effect on everything around her. “I feel lovely. It’s her doing,” one of the wizened dwarves declares admiringly. Another observes that she is “life itself” and will “heal the land.” But she’s not a Jason Bourne; her bravery comes from her quiet charisma and earth-mother compassion, not from physical strength.
The tone and plot of the film feel female-driven too, as we see in the latest girl-anchored love triangle (echoing not only Twilight but the more recent Hunger Games) and perhaps best exemplified by an arresting village scene of the veiled women who’ve scarred themselves to remain safe from Queen Ravenna’s rapacious hunting expeditions. Did the director intend to draw parallels to contemporary assaults on the female body, often enforced by other women, such as female genital mutilation or face-concealing burqas?
On the surface, it’s hard to appreciate just what a cinematic departure Snow White is for the action-movie genre. There are plenty of clichés: grizzled, beer-soaked hero, plucky damsel in distress, vicious killer with creepy sidekick, quirky British character actors adding spice and legitimacy to the enterprise. And of course, the requisite battle scenes of filthy soldiers and horses mired in mud. It takes a little time to realize we’re seeing something new: a warrior princess poised, as A.O. Scott described in the New York Times, at the “precise intersection” of badass and breakable.
And yet there has been an unfair drumbeat of negativity, even rudeness, about Stewart’s portrayal:
“Hollywood’s reigning princess of dour.” “A bit of a galumpher.” “Can’t Kristen be a little more up?” “Stewart fails to impress,” another critic declared, calling her “closed down,”
an “awkward fit,” and “blank-looking” and faulting her “slouchy bearing” and “sulky passivity.” Some critics wondered if she were pretty enough to compete with Theron’s golden, Bond-girl hotness. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post was even blunter, asking, “This is Snow White?” and calling Stewart “nobody’s idea of ‘the fairest in the land,’ ” and “bruised-looking, disaffected and scowling.” Even Lumenick might scowl if he were locked in a dungeon for a decade and forced to swim through raw sewage, not to mention if he were starved, poisoned and pressed into military service. In any event, these claims are misdirected: it’s the men who are gruff and glowering. Stewart has never been more radiant or affecting. Here is an action hero who dances and laughs and cries.
The box office success vindicates the director and actresses who made this movie. Early estimates had predicted a tepid opening for Snow White, but it hit the jackpot this weekend, toppling The Avengers from its perch, with similar numbers of male and female viewers and, equally surprising, more than 50% of its audience over 30. In other words, this is a movie about a young woman, but it’s a story for everyone.