Caution – spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film.
I was a bit thrown when I saw the trailer for this, as it was apparently advertising an entirely different film whose full title was “Snow White and the Witch and the Wardrobe of the Rings of Thrones”. Which was basically what we got, by way of Robin Hood, Joan of Arc and Willow.
Reviews have been all over. MovieBob from the Escapist’s “Escape to the Movies”, who I normally chime quite well with, did not much like it (1). I actually genuinely enjoyed it as a good fantasy movie definitely aiming for the same general targets as LOTR and the two earlier Narnia films, and hitting the mark far more often than not (2). Despite expectations, it managed to provide an interesting, often original and imaginative fantasy story despite the large number of tropes – and at the same time it took some fantasy stereotypes that have gotten very tired and actually breathed new life into them by the sheer authority of being a retelling of a fairy story – i.e. one of our main sources for the tropes. Hence, yes, the princess has a destiny, and the general state of the land is inherently linked to the character of the monarchy (3), and that sort of thing has been done to death in fantasy literature, but because of the particular story they were telling, and because they cranked the latter, especially, up to 11, it worked. Having the courage of your convictions and not trying to weasel your tropes in disguised as a Good Idea is sometimes the best way to make them work.
At the same time, the film also managed to tick most of the Snow White story boxes in an interesting and non-sentimental way. Most impressive in this respect were the dwarves. By the time they turn up you’ve pretty much forgotten that there are supposed to be dwarves in this story, and when they did loom (4) into view I was dreading the traditional ghastly comic turn that would ruin the tone and pace of the movie. The heavyweight casting, however, gives them a gravitas, pathos and depth that makes them one of the key elements of the film even thought they’re not in it so much – and they reinforce the key themes just by being, as (magical creatures) their own health and wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the land, the crown, and therefore the plot. It’s surprisingly elegantly done.
So yes, there was a certain amount of cliché. and a staggering case of foot-in-mouth for the henchman character, who at one point apparently skips a page ahead in the script to reveal his villainous plan before the princess is, in fact, in his clutches, but it was a good fantasy film. But.
One serious wrong note. Religion. I don’t know if someone was trying to stave off the angry Christian Right crowd who muttered so much at Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, whilst passing by the door of the Narnia films because they’d painted a cross on it, but seriously: there is no sign of organized religion in Snow White. There is no sense that the film takes place in any way in the real world. No place names are bandied about. There are no churches that I can recall, nobody goes praying at the altars when the evil queen takes over. The Pope sends no Bulls to fantasyland to excommunicate her. However, there is a single (I think) mention of heaven and angels, which you could probably pass by as fairly generic. There is an entire conclave of doddering bishops in full regalia who get wheeled out for the coronation, but who have been kept the Lord knows where for the rest of the film because, as noted, nobody seems to be either religious or living in a land that has any structure of organized worship/doctrine/etc. Weirdest of all, however, when our Snow is in the slammer at the beginning, and in extremis, she prays. That, fine. OK. But she actually recites the entire Lord’s Prayer, and it was a total immersion breaker. From a world building and writing perspective it felt shoehorned in (and why?) and completely wrong.
I’m not getting all Dawkins on yo’ ass or anything like that, but it would be the same if someone turned up singing Yankie Doodle Dandy (5) or if Atilla the Hun turned up for a cameo (6). The Lord’s Prayer is a culturally specific artifact that comes from a specific religious background that was otherwise entirely absent in the setting. It’s inclusion, in full and with the film’s complete, devoted attention, felt extremely weird and uncomfortable. Mind bogglingly, I have read one review which claims that this inclusion tells us the story takes place in Dark Ages Europe. If that was the intent, it’s a very strong argument for “show don’t tell”.
(1) But then our tastes have been diverging recently. He absolutely slated The Hunger Games movie and, whilst I too was unenthusiastic about the shaky cam fight scenes and the way the plot carefully sheltered the heroes from any actual guilt as she went through the gladiatorial bloodfest, I felt the film I watched was far better than the film he watched, and I don’t think Battle Royale comparisons are particularly helpful.
(2) And very ably assisted by James Newton Howard’s soundtrack – a composer who should get more gigs.
(3) God help them if they have a revolution, that’s all I’m saying.
(4) Or, you know, whatever.
(5) Unless they were referencing Mark Twain, I guess.
(6) Or, say, Santa Claus turning up in Narnia, because, seriously, WTF Lewis?