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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It's One Grimm Popcorn Flick: An Analysis of Snow White and the Huntsman

Welcome back to the nest!

I did promise folklore and mythology on this here blog, and I aim to deliver. And so, with trepidation, hope, and my boyfriend and his baby sister, I found myself in a theatre watching Snow White and the Huntsman. I've lightly touched on my love of fairy tales before. I've also made it clear that I enjoy fantasy settings but have reservations about them. Well, wouldn't you know it, this movie did a fine job of justifying both the love and the...lesser love.

So, first question: should you see this movie? Well, I'd actually recommend it, but with reservations, as I'm about to explain. Do I need to warn you that there will be spoilers? Well, consider yourself warned.

So, without further ado, I'm about to get mediaeval on this movie's ass--settle into a nice milk bath, and enjoy the critique.

Source. It's like this, but also completely different from this.

Main Characters: Or, Why I Wish Hollywood Would Grow Out of Name-Dropping.

As always happens with these sorts of movies, there are three fairly big names and a bunch of mid-level types. The minor actors all do a good enough job, I suppose, but this movie really rests on its trinity of stars, and boy does it show.

Bella Snow White: Kristen Stewart is like rice: you can cover her in sauce, add a variety of stir-fried vegetables, meat or tofu, or serve her as a side-dish, but she is still, irrevocably, a bland and somewhat starchy product. However, rice is actually filling and somewhat nutritious, and has more of a flavour range than Stewart. I'm not saying I hate her. She's too nice to hate. However, I spent virtually every moment she was in the frame wishing she'd close her damn mouth. Even if one has been locked in a tower for the last few years, one shouldn't leave the old gob hanging down slackly. It's just begging for a good slap. She also has a tendency to slouch about and look gormless far more than a princess should.

She isn't as annoying as Bella was, of course, and having the movie write itself around her as some sort of semi-immortal paragon of innocence (or something...it was unclear, and we'll get to that in a minute) only worked half of the time. Sure, in the fairy forest, and a few other times, her delivery really worked--as she paused, a timid, doe-like grace suggested itself in her frame and in her eyes. Those moments of absorption were a pleasure to watch. However, her adorable upturned nose, stick-out ears, and buck teeth sort of clashed with the composition of all the 'fairest in the land' beauty shots. I hate picking on her appearance, here, but I do think it made a difference, especially when she is set beside the queen.

Ravenna: It's no secret that I like girls almost as much as I like men, but damn, Charlize Theron would be enough to make even the most red-blooded straight girl question her preferences. I didn't realise it was her, at first, but the ageless, sculpted beauty and smouldering charisma of the queen left no doubt. Between a truly fabulous wardrobe and some very subtle acting, I was sold. Theron seems to like roles that involve her beauty being compromised, and watching the Queen deal with aging and growing youthful again was certainly interesting. The way she reacted to things and suggestions of her frigidity and victimization (including vaguely implied childhood sexual assault) was marvellous. Oh, sure, Hemsworth and Stewart were pretty, but Ravenna was worth the price of the admission. I would have loved to see a film solely centred on her back-story; not unlike the famous Elphaba of Wicked, she is a fascinating figure. At least one person watching it with me thought her acting could've been better, and I'd agree that the temper tantrum was pretty artificial, but her lonely, self-reliant, wounded character is still a treat to watch.

The Huntsman: Chris Hemsworth does a pretty good job of stepping to the sidelines in his role as Huntsman; he lets Stewart glow with the magic of the film and concentrates on playing a protective, good-natured lunkhead with a few hints of genuine emotional richness. He knows his character has a good heart rather than a strong brain, and he works with it; better still, he doesn't play a mediaeval Thor. The suggestion of questionable morals and a pinch of Han Soloesque actions make him a likeable sort of fellow. He also handles the underplayed romantic encounters with Stewart deftly, which makes one of them, at least. He did seem to be feeling like Pedobear for getting so close to an actress substantially younger than himself, but he handled it well.

Source. Here, you go over there and I'll make a Neanderthal face while your mouth hangs open again!

Visuals: These were what kept me in the theatre and glued to the screen. From the tiny perfect details in the armour construction to the delicious sartorial work in the ladies' and dwarves' costumes to the sweeping beauties of the settings, I was thrilled. The camera work is mostly excellent, with lots of wide-framed shots that really get a story-book feeling across. There was some sloppy editing, unfortunately, and occasionally cases of unintended camera wobbling, but the clean, stark colour choices and use of colour themes was wonderful to see. The Sanctuary's fairy forest was lovely, and the evil forest, equally so; the castle, a joy to explore. There were tonnes of cliches, but the wholehearted embrace of them actually worked in the film's favour. Sometimes the CGI was contrived, but frell it, I didn't care; the atmosphere and composition were spot-on for that fairy-tale feeling. Even if the actors sometimes waver, the designers believed in their vision wholeheartedly.

References: No, not mine, the film's. I just can't let the visual and literary references to other works go unnoticed. There were a few Shrek-like moments with the Huntsman and Snow White, some clear visual references to Lord of The Rings with the whole 'filing in line up a craggy mountain/hilltop edge' bit, and, most surprisingly--and uselessly--a reference to Murakami's masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, when a many-horned white stag in front of a cleft tree 'blesses' Princess Bel Snow White. There were, of course, some very expected Twilight references, such as Ravenna's creepy pale brother, Gollum, WhatsisNuts, explicitly saying that he was watching Be Snow White sleeping. (There is also the beginning of what Bella should've done with Edward, i.e., cut his bitch face open with a rusty nail. I wish that had been a Twilight reference.)

I don't know if I need to mention the 'girl leading the people' scenes and the hint of Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen about the story; having magpies as Snow White's symbol (yes, I did squee) certainly didn't hurt the suggestion of that, either. I don't even know how to classify the romantic triangle that was suggested--is that even a reference, or just a trope, at this point? There was also a less innocent reference--the Queen wants Snow's heart because it will somehow give her eternal youth. The way Snow White is portrayed and the way Ravenna is portrayed was more than a little reminescent of Neil Gaiman's beautiful Stardust, one of the loveliest fairy tales to be written in the modern age. It's well worth a read, and the eating hearts and entrails of wee cute animals is repeated there as well as in this film, though more tastefully in Gaiman's version. I don't know if I'd call this one intellectual copyright violation, but I'd say that between the darkish feel and that thematic similarity, there was definitely a hint of Gaiman's inspiration for this one.

Source. She's pointing at you, movie, now explain yourself and apologize!

What Does It All Mean?: Now we come to the fun part.

Winter Symbolism:I mentioned that Stardust had a witch looking for an immortal's heart--a star's, in this case, not a princess's--and I should've mentioned the aging-when-magic-is-used thing there, too. This film, however, takes that basic concept, which is not terribly rare, and seems to use it as a subtle commentary on the feminine quest for beauty. Ravenna must literally suck the souls and beauty out of young women to keep herself beautiful, and her makeup is generally cover-model immaculate. In comparison to Snow White's wholesome, dirty-fingered, natural prettiness, which is supposed to come from within (something Steward sort of fails to portray), it is bot spectacular and as artificial as a hothouse orchid. Ravenna also seems to simultaneously love, hate, and fear her condition of imperfect immortality and beauty, a curse forced on her by a mother trying to defend her from the ravages of a predatory king.

Ravenna spends her life destroying men and their kingdoms, but my not-so-inner psychologist noticed some clear suggestions of trauma and replaying her own victimization on others. This makes for a complex villain, and I was actually a bit mad at Snow White for simply stabbing her in the end, rather than shedding a couple drops of her own blood to break the Queen's curse. Sure, Ravenna is evil, but she is still fond of her creepy monkey brother, and even though she is a carrion-creature, personifying death and winter, her loneliness makes her sympathetic. Snow White's verdant themes and spring-toned associations are a bland contrast against Ravenna's solitude, but the message of natural beauty and its triumph over artifice is a subtle one that every review I've seen so far completely missed.

Christian Politics:I also want to touch briefly on the Christianity vs. Paganism thing before I give the perfunctory feminist analysis a go. In one scene, Snow White says the Lord's Prayer, and there are a few quiet references to the Crusades. The Queen, in contrast, is firmly pagan, with her raven association--a callback to celtic goddess Morrigan, goddess of war, associated with the carrion birds. We can't forget her movement through stages of maiden, mother/wife, and crone, and above all, the blood ceremony in her childhood binding her to unnatural life and beauty doesn't really smack of prayer circles, either. The milk baths, too, are an interesting addition to her daily routine of beauty preservation, because milk was supposed to not only soften the skin, but also block magic. Roses, too, responsible for Snow White's colour, are supposed to have anti-magical properties...these are interesting, at least, but the movie never does anything with them, just a couple of unexplored themes to go with all the tiny loose plot threads it leaves.

Dat Feminism:Finally, the feminism thing. The movie passes the Beschdel test--I've mentioned it before, in That Feminist Post, and that's a relief. However, it sends conflicting messages. Ravenna's beauty makes her a victim of male control, but Snow White's mother tells her she will be a good leader, without mentioning a man at all. The romance is nicely underplayed and left to suggestion rather than being a focus (a huge shock for me, but not an unpleasant one). And yet, there are no women in the army apart from Snow White, undercutting that independent idea once again. Add the suggestion that Snow White is somehow immortal, and you have a 'women inevitably ruin everything' situation on your hands. The movie hints at this stuff, but doesn't follow through with it, leaving me hungry for a sequel and/or prequel that is artistically bold enough to do so.

Final Prognosis: It had some huge plot holes and occasionally weak acting, and I'm not even touching the unnecessary cameo dwarves with a standard ten-foot-pole, but the visual feast and subtle themes in Snow White and the Huntsman make it worth a watch. It's good for popcorn viewings, sure, but more intellectual members of the audience will have a few things to play with. And that, at least, counts for something.


Well, I hope you enjoyed the show today. There will be more on folklore, game reviews from the Humble Bundle, science!, and of course, tasty teasers for my fiction writing in posts to come. Don't you dare touch that dial. Follow me on Twitter at SciFiMagpie and on Tumbler at SciFiMagpie. The Tumblr is still under construction, but I hope to see you there! This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

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