SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN: Worth A Ticket - Not a Disneyland Ride
Just to be clear, the new SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN bears about as much resemblance to this spring’s Mirror Mirror as The Dark Knight did to the 1960s Batman TV series. Sure, there are some familiar aspects–an evil queen stepmother, a poisoned apple, dwarves–but this version of the tale is as dark and brooding as Mirror was candy-colored slapstick. This is a fairy tale where people die, often horribly, so tell the kiddies to wait for Madagascar 3 next week.
The price a movie pays for being ambitious is that it’s held to a higher standard, and although Snow is far superior to recent revisionist fairy tales like Mirror Mirror and Tangled, its scale and intensity beg comparison with more serious works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones. Those aren’t achievements it can match, but there are stretches when the film almost reaches its goals.
The basic story of the piece remains. Once upon a time there was a kingdom with a wise and good king who made the mistake, after the death of his wife, of falling for another woman who wasn’t at all what she seemed. In this version she’s called Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and she promptly murders the king and imprisons his daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart). When Ravenna discovers (courtesy of a communicative mirror on the wall) that she can gain immortality as fairest of them all by devouring Snow White’s beating heart, she decides she’s been too kind to the girl–but before she can indulge her bloodlust, Snow White escapes from the castle into the woods. Ravenna sends a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to find her, and before long height-challenged forest inhabitants are encountered. There’s also a heroic prince (here named William, played by Sam Claflin).
The main difference in the storyline from the traditional–which, for most Americans, means the 1937 cartoon–is that Snow White, a happy homemaker in the old days, is now a Joan of Arc clone, a warrior princess who marches into battle with sword and armor, ready to reclaim her kingdom. This would seem more original if the Snow White of TV’s Once Upon A Time hadn’t gotten there first, but it’s still a welcome departure from Disney days
Although this Snow cost a reported $175M–and looks it–its most towering special effect is a human. Charlize Theron, as the black pool of evil that is Ravenna, is a fantastic creation, a truly epic villain. Theron, whose part has so much depth than anyone else’s that it’s like she had her own personal screenwriter (and maybe she did), is never more terrifying than when she’s revealing the vulnerability and fear barely suppressed beneath her viciousness. Ravenna is a mix of desperation and utter ruthlessness, and Theron doesn’t need the CG make-up and elaborate costumes she gets (the latter, by Colleen Atwood, are admittedly stunning) to pull it off.
Snow‘s director, first-timer Rupert Sanders (he comes from the commercial and music video world), has been wise enough to stand back and let Theron do her thing. Elsewhere, though, his work is stronger in some areas than others. Visually, the film is a marvel. Working with cinemtographer Greig Fraser (he also shot the gorgeous Bright Star and Let Me In), production designer Dominic Watkins, who’s often worked with Paul Greengrass, costume designer Atwood and many superb CG technicians, Sanders has created a world of bleak beauty, with somber skies, jagged castles, and branches in the dark woods that can turn at any moment into snakes.
Sanders is less assured when handling the script. Evan Daughterty, John Lee Hooker and Hossein Amini get the credit, although it wouldn’t be surprising if others contributed, and while the result does the job of getting the story told, the middle section of the movie lacks narrative momentum–it’s just a lot of footage of characters wandering through the forest, without any clear goal–and much of the conversation is banal. The characters (aside from Ravenna) are thin, and Sanders and his editors, Conrad Buff IV and Neil Smith, overcut (and too quickly cut away from) the conversational scenes, not giving the actors the lingering moments that would help their characters leave more of an impression. It’s as though Sanders were afraid that the audience would get restless if asked to consider the characters are more than iconic figures.
Given the limitations of the screenplay, the actors are mostly fine. Stewart, an unconventional choice to play the girl whose sheer beauty is meant to drive the story, is strong and convincing, although it would have been nice if Sanders or the writers had been willing to give her even the slightest trace of a sense of humor. (Ginnifer Goodwin’s TV Snow White is much better company.) It’s also unfortunate that none of the multiple screenwriters could structure the story to give Stewart and Theron more than their minimal shared screen time. Hemsworth, playing sort of a Bogartish leading man/character actor role, seems to be enjoying his time out of the Thor costume–but again, the story needed more of a relationship to form between his Huntsman and Snow White. A lot of extremely good actors play the dwarves–Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone among them–yet they mostly remain CG tricks, with their recognizable heads placed on smaller bodies. Claflin can’t do much with his Prince role, but Sam Spruell is a dandy secondary villain as Ravenna’s brother.
Sanders’ action scenes, while spectacular, are what’s become the Hollywood usual of frenzied cutting with little emotional effect. (Last week’s Blackpool episode of Game of Thrones, which had to compensate for a budget that probably covered Theron’s gowns in this movie, managed much more with much less.) Sanders uses his generous budget perhaps too well, with more trolls, fairies, magical stags, metallic warriors and other creatures than the movie really needed.
Compared to what we’ve seen of the summer movies so far, Snow White and The Huntsman, despite its limitations, is pleasingly willing to take risks, sumptuous to watch and boasting a memorable foe for its heroine. Theron’s Ravenna may not hold on to the kingdom, but she definitely wins the movie.