The movie starts off before Snow White's birth, shows how happy her family was, and then shows how her father grieved after her mother's death. A mysterious army shows up, which Snow White's father, the king, goes off to fight. After the mysterious army is defeated, the king discovers that they had been transporting a prisoner (Charlize Theron). The king is immediately smitten with her and marries her only a day or two, I think, after he finds her. She kills him on their wedding night and invites her own army, plus her brother, into the castle. Most of the people in the castle are either killed or imprisoned, although a few, such as Snow White's friend William, escape. Snow White is kept prisoner for the next few years.
During those years, the queen keeps herself young and beautiful by absorbing the youth of the kingdom's most beautiful women. And possibly also the kingdom's most handsome young men. All the while, she asks her mirror who's the fairest of them all...until the day Snow White comes of age and becomes more beautiful than she. If she eats Snow White's heart (I think), she'll stay beautiful longer, her powers will be stronger, and she'll have gotten rid of the only person in the kingdom who could vanquish her. However, Snow White manages to escape and meets people, such as a widowed huntsman and some dwarves, who start off as her protectors and eventually join her in the fight against the queen.
I didn't have high hopes for this movie, but I didn't expect it to be quite as bad as it was.
The best thing I can say about it is that it looked good. It was pretty, in a mostly dark sort of way, and the various fantasy elements (the troll, the shard beings, the lovely-weird plants in the sanctuary, etc.) looked great. Unfortunately, I thought the movie failed in every way that really counted. A good-looking movie is nothing if it doesn't at least have interesting characters and/or a solid story.
I'm not sure what the screenwriters were thinking. I highly doubt they had someone go through the screenplay to make sure that everything made sense. Why did the queen immediately kill the king after marrying him but then leave Snow White alive? How did so many people know Snow White's identity on sight, even though the last time anyone had seen her was when she was a child? How did Snow White go from being someone who had to be taught by the huntsman how to stab a person, and who then said she didn't think she could do something like that, to being someone who could ride out into battle, wield a sword (granted, not very well), and run up stairs while wearing plate armor and chain mail? There was zero indication, by the way, that she had had any further training, even if one assumed that she magically developed the strength to move around while weighed down by all that metal.
I was also a little confused as to whether there was supposed to be a romantic storyline or not. I think there was one, but it was so badly done it was hard to tell. It was more along the lines of “we have a pretty woman and two good-looking men, so of course there must be some romance.” Snow White and William were friends when they were children, so that made for an easy potential romance setup. The huntsman was hot, but...still grieving for his dead wife. So I figured he was out of the running as a romantic lead. Except he wasn't.
A big part of the problem was that there was zero chemistry between Kristen Stewart and either Sam Claflin (William) or Chris Hemsworth (the huntsman – who I just realized never got a proper name). Because of the “childhood friend” setup, I could see her ending up with William, but at best they would have made a boring couple. Try as I might (and I did try, because I preferred the idea of Chris Hemsworth as a romantic lead), I couldn't imagine the huntsman being attracted to Snow White. The bit near the end, in which he kissed her, was a shock, and when he started talking about how she reminded him of his wife I felt more uncomfortable than warm and fuzzy. Although signs point more towards Snow White ending up with the huntsman, the movie's ending is ambiguous, which might have gone over better with me if the story and characters had been richer.
Speaking of the characters, Snow White was cardboard. The huntsman at least dredged up some emotion from time to time, so he was marginally more interesting, although, since he was entirely built around his grief for his dead wife, the kissing scene and some scenes after that felt a bit off. There was an attempt to make the queen more than just a cardboard villain, but it all felt kind of sloppy and badly-thought-out. One scene explained the origins of the magic that kept her young, and, although it was never explicitly stated, there were hints that her hatred of men and desire to be the most beautiful woman around stemmed from a horrible childhood and possibly being raped at some point when she was younger. The queen's relationship with her brother had the potential to be really interesting, complex, and twisted, but something about the way it was done felt incomplete to me. Even so, that relationship was still more interesting than the relationship between Snow White and anyone else, and the queen was overall more interesting than Snow White. You can't make characters more interesting by naming the movie after them.
In addition to the many problems I had with the story and mostly flat characters, the way the “beauty” theme was handled didn't quite sit well with me. I knew the queen was going to be completely obsessed with Snow White's and others' physical appearance, but I had kind of hoped that the movie in general would focus more on Snow White's strength as a future queen. I was glad that the huntsman wasn't immediately brought to his knees by Snow White's beauty and innocence, but there were still so many scenes where Snow White charmed people and creatures with little more than her presence. “Beauty” was such a fragile thing that women were able to make themselves “not beautiful” just by adding a couple scars to their cheeks. By the way, when I first saw those scars I thought those women practiced scarification as part of some kind of woman warrior ritual, and I thought the scars looked kind of awesome. I couldn't, and still can't, wrap my brain around the idea that those scars somehow made those women not beautiful enough to be worth the queen's notice.
A few random other things:
- I could not take my eyes off the placement of dirt on people's skin. Men were allowed to be grimy everywhere. Women, on the other hand, could only be really grimy on their hands, feet, and maybe their backs. Their face, neck, and chest areas maybe had a few smudges of dirt, but that was it. This was most obvious in one of the movie's earliest scenes, the introduction of the evil queen. Her feet and hands/wrists were horribly grimy, which made it a shock when her hood fell back enough to see how clean her hair and face looked. That alone should have made the king or one of his men suspicious, but I guess they were too caught up by her beauty.
- That forest spirit, or whatever it was, totally reminded me of the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - If you'd like something in which a young heroine gets to have an awesome moment leading an entire army, you might want to try this. There are several prominently-featured female characters who start off kind of weak and whiny, but keep watching, because they eventually become stronger and more capable. I've written about the anime and two of the light novels on which the anime is based.
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - This is another one starring a strong female main character. She ends up becoming the protector of a young prince who is believed to have a water demon within him that will lead to a terrible drought. I have written about both the anime and the book upon which the anime is based.
- Ever After (live action movie) - If you'd like another fairy tale retelling (in this case, Cinderella) featuring a strong heroine, you might want to try this. There's more of a focus on romance - no clashing armies and big action scenes.
- The 10th Kingdom (live action TV series); The 10th Kingdom (book) by Kathryn Wesley - The special effects can be a bit cheesy, but this may still appeal to those who'd like a somewhat darker take on fairy tales. I have written about the book, which is a novelization of the original TV miniseries. (Wow. While looking up the novelization on Amazon in order to link to it, I noticed that the price of the DVD boxed set is really high. It didn't cost nearly that much when I bought it, or I wouldn't own it.)
- Fairest (book) by Gail Carson Levine - Those who'd like another Snow White retelling might want to try this YA novel. I have written about the audio book version.