The plot of the movie bears almost no resemblance to the published summary. The summary would lead you to expect a montage of shots where the Huntsman is training Snow White in the arts of hand-to-hand combat and how to lead troops a la Joan of Arc. In actuality, there's a single, hurried 30-second scene where he shows her how to stab someone (which of course is the move she uses to kill the Queen). That's it. They spend the rest of the time running for their lives. So I liked that the movie's plot didn't go entirely as expected, in several key ways.
I was amused with how quickly he found her (and how much sense it made that he did). I had expected it to be a bit more protracted, and for him to find her while he's out hunting alone (as in the most common retelling of the tale), thus giving them a private opportunity for his heart to be melted by her impassioned pleas and for the beginning of a romance, etc., etc. Instead, we have the scene where he's commissioned to hunt her down, and then about a minute later, in the very next scene, he drags her out of her hiding place and presents her to the bad guys, who have accompanied him into the forest. At that point, I found myself wondering how the writers were going to get them out of this situation.
This is where having
That's one of the most powerful things about the movie, I think. We never get any big romantic scenes, no big romantic kisses (despite there being three kisses in the movie), no confessions of love, no dance scenes (despite there being an obvious opportunity for one), no tragic scenes of lovers dying for each other (unless you count the eighth dwarf, and I don't), no heros rescuing the heroines or vice versa in the finale, not even any opportunities for swelling romantic music while the lovers stand staring doe-eyed at each other. That's not to say that there isn't a lovely romance happening silently within it all, but it's not the win condition. Snow White doesn't resolve the conflict by winning the heart of her Prince Charming. The final frame of the movie doesn't contain a guy and girl madly in love with each other, just Snow White alone in the middle of a crowd, remote, formal, clutching a blooming branch and looking a little isolated under the weight of her new responsibilities. She's won, but now she's got the monumental task of rebuilding a destroyed, desolate kingdom. The story has only begun.
I also loved the fact that the writers had all the ingredients for a love triangle and they just don't go anywhere near it. It's clear that both her childhood friend, the Duke's son, and the Huntsman are fond of her, for their own reasons and with their own personal histories, but they don't let their feelings cloud their judgement. There's never a moment when they have a pissing match. Ever. Not even a single jealous glance. That was hugely refreshing. We never have a scene where Snow White agonizes over which one she's in love with. The plot doesn't turn on her choosing one of them. Both men are essential to the plot, but they are ultimately both incidental to Snow White successfully bringing the plot to a close. Again, a pleasant, well-executed surprise. Why aren't the feminists out in droves, supporting this movie?
Charlize Theron as the Queen. She chewed the scenery, which made the character work. You hated the Queen and yet at the same time ached horribly for her. She was miserable and desperate. Her powers were formidable and yet frustratingly limited. She oozed evil but was never campy and she never seemed to really be enjoying herself. You get only the thinnest of backstory for her, but you see that her mother's desperate attempt to save her young daughter's life by using the girl's beauty as her salvation backfired: the Queen came to believe that her beauty was her salvation, and then, predictably, as she lost her beauty, she felt that she was losing herself. It wasn't that she was shallow: she had plenty of depth, but the only things she had in those depths were pain, betrayal, fear, and a life without selfless, trustworthy love. Her brother was little more than an appendage, and he knew it.
I also liked how this is not a tale about wrinkled old age being pushed aside by young beauty, despite the surface appearance of the two main female characters. The Queen never once indicates that she's jealous of Snow White's beauty; the mirror is more of a measure of the strength of her magic than a means of perpetuating vanity. The word "fairest" takes on an entirely different meaning in this movie, referring more to innocence or righteousness than beauty. Snow White's claim to fame is repeatedly established as her moral blamelessness, not her looks. (Yay!) When the Queen asks the mirror if she's the fairest one, she's asking whether she still has the moral high ground, compared to the men in her life who have used her. When she encounters Snow White, though, her own sense of righteousness pales in comparison to true righteousness. This is a tale of a woman whose life was twisted around a lie that eventually destroyed her. She was already dying a painful internal death long before she ever entered the story. Her actual death felt more tragic than triumphant and Theron was utterly convincing.
On the topic of this notion of righteousness, not physical beauty, as the key character difference, I came across a review that referred to Snow White's reciting the Lord's Prayer while in her cell as a "brief, jarring reference to Christianity", as if Christianity is strangely out of place in this tale. On the contrary, this prayer was something else that made me take a second look at this movie as something more than just a run-of-the-mill retelling of the tale. They could have set the story in a fairy tale world of black vs. white earth magic without any reference to organized religion, so the prayer did catch me by surprise. The more the themes of the story came out, though, the more the prayer made sense. Suppose it is set within a Christian worldview and that Snow White is a real Christian (her name could be drawn from Psalm 51:7 or Isaiah 1:18, referring to God's washing us to be "as white as snow" when He redeems us from sin, which is "red as scarlet"). When she says, "I used to hate the Queen, but now I feel only sorrow," it makes more sense. How could someone so terribly wronged be able to truly let go of their hate, especially compared to the Queen herself, who is consumed and defined by her hate? Snow White's heart is pure not because she's intrinsically better than the Queen, but because she's chosen to trust God and He's freed her from the very same trap that the Queen herself is caught in. I also didn't see anything incompatible with that take on the movie's spiritual themes when we encountered the fairies' sanctuary and the White Stag. God is represented as a stag in Song of Solomon. The whole scene had the same sort of feel as the Chronicles of Narnia. It annoys me that nature has been divorced from the Christian God in modern popular culture, as if Christianity is this monolithic, power-hungry, dry thing imposed on a beautiful, natural, free world that existed before the blight of Christ came along. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's a false conflict that's been created, and this movie does a nice, subtle job of showing that the whole story is a continuum, and that the real conflict is within the characters' hearts, not between different forms of magic.
Chris Hemsworth acquitted himself well as the Huntsman. The role didn't require a lot more from him than Thor did, but when he had a chance to do something other than swing a heavy weapon around and growl at things, he actually did it well. The Huntsman is almost immediately an unexpected character: he's a widower. That one fact of his existence drives nearly everything else he does: his drunkenness, his willingness to hunt Snow White, his inability to turn her over to the Queen's men, his eventual willingness to believe in her and risk his life for hers, and--the lynchpin of the plot--his ability to wake her from the curse with his kiss. After all the physicality of the character up to that point, the muted performance in the pivotal waking scene was a marked contrast and was all the more powerful for it.
I also loved how the movie never made it clear whether either character knew why Snow White had woken up from an apparent death. She doesn't awaken until after the Hunstman is gone, and she never indicates that she knows that he did anything extraordinary. Fanfic plot bunnies abound.
The movie is visually gorgeous; that in itself is worth the price of admission. I'm torn over the dwarves: the effects used to make normal-sized men look like believable dwarves were incredible, but I'm uncomfortable with what this might bode for the real-life dwarf actors out there. The landscapes are beautiful; the fairies looked otherworldly without being cutesy; the white stag was stunning; the Queen's scenes were all worth watching a second time; you never get bored with the visuals.
But the real reasons I liked the movie were all the ways in which it didn't go where I expected, and yet still worked. It was both satisfying and left me wanting more. Excellent.