"Snow White and the Huntsman" is a large and unexpected triumph of the movie summer. No, it's not going to be one of those populist CGI bedazzlements and box office behemoths that keep megaplexes humming at 747 volume, a la "The Avengers" and "Men in Black 3."
It's something, I submit, a little bit better -- something that's actually a little new in the world. It's a very clever mash-up of fairy tale and medieval romance whose very existence serves to give us a 21st century Snow White of the sort we all need to be told of, not just young girls trying to make sense of the women they're going to be expected to become.
It's the Tolkien cinematic mix, but there's something radical about it applied to a real fairy tale. ("Mirror, Mirror" be damned.)
By the time you get to the final act of "Snow White and the Huntsman," you've got a princess who isn't merely content to marry a handsome prince and watch her stepmother dance to her death in molten-hot iron shoes (one of those macabre touches that make the Grimm Brothers such routine purveyors of folk horror). The Snow White we end up with here is more like "Snow of Arc," a fiery, oratorical prodigy in larval form who ends up in chainmail leading a nation's troops into battle in a castle defended by soldiers and magic.
The old passive Snow White merely serves as a rite of passage. She'll appear dead and be kissed, but only so she can take her rightful place as the Good Queen who will, at long last, rid the world of the Evil Queen who always wanted to be "the fairest of them all" and wound up turning her own kingdom into a wretched place where "people turned on each other and nature turned on itself."
That queen may be "obsessed with beauty and her own desires," as the great fairy tale translator Jack Zipes says of Disney witches in "The Irresistible Fairy Tale," but that's because she's one of the "stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the Christian church's demonization of women."
So now we have a queen played by an actress who, in any male gaze anywhere, is tellingly more beautiful than the wonderful and touching actress (Kristen Stewart) who plays Snow White. She is Charlize Theron, the impossibly tall and impossibly beautiful goddess who proves early on to be just made for a queen who maintains her youth and beauty only by inhaling those other women.
Snow White, practically from birth, is a beautiful soul. She rescues injured birds. Her stepmother dips her daggered fingernails into the bodies of similar birds and devours their little beating hearts like candy (an image from the film almost equal to the original Grimm tale of the queen's cooking and devouring what she thinks are Snow's heart and lungs which were offered as counterfeit proof of her death).
When Theron is angry and shouting at mirrors, underlings and the audience, she's awfully good. That's one evil stepmama. No 3-D was necessary. Stewart, on the other hand, so embodies sensitivity to most gazes (of either gender) that you might have trouble accepting the warrior in chainmail she becomes. For the sake of story and a new Snow, you'll go along to get along.
What I quite frankly love about this new "Snow White" are all its side trips, the cause of nice tidy narrative be hanged. I love the clever invention of a small village of women and children where the women have deliberately scarred their own faces so the evil queen can't acquire their physical beauty. And the fairyland where the seven dwarfs roam around, where immense beautiful green plants suddenly disperse into a cloud of dazzling green butterflies (and where the dwarfs are somehow shrunk and played by some of England's best actors, including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones and Ray Winstone.)
And, best of all, the truly marvelous ambiguous ending of this film where a kingdom has been saved and the cost of political stability is paid by the very idea of love. A brave, subtle, sophisticated and brilliant ending for this movie and one I don't think should go unloved for a second. Quite the contrary (all alone, it caused me to add an extra half star).
Two impressive film talents are making their major film debuts here -- director Rupert Sanders and writer Evan Daugherty.
More power to them.
A welcome addition indeed to the festivities at your local megaplex.
> MOVIE REVIEW
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Bob Hoskins
DIRECTOR: Rupert Sanders
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality.
THE LOWDOWN: New treatment of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm introduces war, power and computer-generated imagery.