Friday, June 1, 2012


(US, 2012)

Directed by Rupert Sanders.  Written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini.  Cast: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Sam Claflin, Sam Spruell, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Vincent Regan, Lily Cole, Noah Huntley. (PG-13, 127 mins)

The danger of doing a revisionist take on anything these days is that no matter what, the purists will bitch and moan just as loudly as they would if the filmmakers simply redid the same old story as it's always been told.  SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is faced with that dilemma and works on both sides of it at various times throughout, and while it isn't always successful, it hits much more often than it misses.

After marrying and murdering the widower King (Noah Huntley) and imprisoning his young daughter Snow White in one of the castle towers, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) takes control, remaining ever-youthful as the years by as her kingdom withers and dies, with the people suffering under her poisonous rule.  When her Magic Mirror informs her that Snow White is now the fairest of them all, Ravenna orders her devoted brother Finn (Sam Spruell)--definite incestuous implications here--to kill the now-grown Snow White (Kristen Stewart), who manages to escape, fleeing the castle grounds.  Ravenna sends drunken widower/mercenary huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) to find her, promising to return his late wife from the dead.  Discovering, just as Finn and his soldiers try to kill him, that is one of the few powers Ravenna doesn't possess, Eric decides to protect Snow White and they're on the run from village to village, through the Dark Forest and beyond, with Finn in hot pursuit.

Kristen Stewart as Snow White
Many of the core elements of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale are here, just not where you'd typically expect them:  there's the mirror, there's a poisoned apple, there's the Queen disguising herself in an attempt to trick Snow White, there's a prince, an hallucinatory, almost acid-trip-level enchanted forest (with googly-eyed, blinking mushrooms!), and there's dwarves.  Eight of them, to be exact, gregariously played with extensive CGI assistance by a veritable supergroup of British Character Actor Hall of Famers like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost.  But even with fleeting humor, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is grim, dark, and downbeat, with occasional horrific overtones (though not as overtly horrific as 1997's SNOW WHITE: A TALE OF TERROR, with Sigourney Weaver), a sort-of "Snow White" by way of LORD OF THE RINGS and GAME OF THRONES.  It ends not with a wedding, but with a war, as Snow White leads a rebel attack on Ravenna's castle.

Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman, with the dwarves,
led by Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins.
With a frankly ridiculous budget of $170 million, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN looks stunning.  The visual effects, the CGI work, and the production design are absolutely top-notch.  I don't see it making its money back on US screens, but it seems with each passing week, these mega-budget American films are doing better overseas than they are domestically (BATTLESHIP is a flop in the States, but a hit across the ocean).  This has always been the case to some degree, but recently, the American box office take isn't carrying the importance it once did.  Confidence in the foreign market may explain why Universal was willing to hand such a large-budget film to first-time director Rupert Sanders.  Sanders, a veteran of TV commercials, does a good job but doesn't really distinguish himself with anything that looks like a future "Sandersian" calling card.  He does resort to a couple of annoying cliches, like the "sweeping aerial shot over a small band of warriors, walking along the top of a mountain, accompanied by a soaring, majestic score," and the increasingly tiresome "something smudging/splattering against the camera lens and staying there for several seconds."  This has really been overused in recent years, and it's particularly ridiculous here when it comes after what they think is Ravenna dissolves into a flock of ravens, one of whom is hit and appears to splatter on the lens.  It's stupid because a) it's a brief distraction that takes the viewer out of the moment and the period setting and calls attention to the camera, and b) we all know it's a CGI bird, so why would a piece of it stick to the camera lens?  A more experienced filmmaker wouldn't have resorted to such a "check this out!" move.  Especially one as beaten-to-death as this.

Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna
But I've spent half a paragraph discussing a problem that constitutes maybe six seconds of screen time.  The film is really firing on all cylinders when Theron is onscreen.  Playing the mad Ravenna with shrieking gusto but never crossing the line into camp, Theron gives it everything she's got.  The script, by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock (THE BLIND SIDE), and Hossein Amini (DRIVE) gives Ravenna a backstory that provides the Queen with somewhat different motivation than mere vanity.  Stewart handles herself well and I found her believable throughout, even in the "Snow White as angry warrior" finale, but the thing with Stewart and her TWILIGHT fame is that there's just as many people who love her as there are that love to hate her.  Who knows why?  I've seen none of the TWILIGHT films, but while she's not yet a great actress by any means, I've never seen her stop a movie cold.  Of course, she's upstaged by Theron here, but she's fine in the role.  In what seems like a concession to the TWILIGHT crowd simply because she's Kristen Stewart, there's hints of a love triangle developing between Snow White, the Huntsman, and a prince (Sam Claflin), but it seems to get cast aside in favor of the final battle.

I can see audiences not warming up to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN:  it'll be too gray, grim, and muddy for some and there's not nearly enough romance for the Stewart base.  But like Ridley Scott's ROBIN HOOD (2010), another recent, widely disparaged revisionist take on a famous story, it works perfectly fine if taken on its own terms and not just in the context of what a viewer wants it to be or what they've already seen and feel it should be.

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