Visually Resplendent Snow White Theron’s Playground
You know the story. An evil witch bedevils a beloved king leading him to his doom, usurping his kingdom in the process. Strangely unable to bring herself to kill the man’s beautiful adolescent daughter, she instead keeps her a prisoner in the castle, the land withering and dying as the year’s pass and the child enters into womanhood. There’s a magic mirror. There’s a portent of doom foreshadowing the queen’s eventual demise. There is a huntsman unable to carry out his dastardly royal deed of death. There are seven dwarfs who come to the aid of a beauteous lost soul mysteriously arrived at their doorstep. Like I said, you know this story.
But unlike Tarsem Singh’s borderline Bollywood take on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale Mirror Mirror, commercial wunderkind Rupert Sanders’ big budget, visually resplendent directorial debut Snow White and the Huntsman isn’t for the little ones. Sure it boasts a PG-13 rating, and yes its bits of swordplay and daring-do are no more outlandish or extreme as any of those found in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epics. But Walt Disney-like family-friendly this version is not, the filmmaker pumping up the volume and digging deeply into the muck and mire to bring his vision of the story to life.
Yet, Sanders’ attempt is maybe even closer to the source material than Singh’s candy-colored, kiddie-centric frolic ever was. While this Evil Queen, here named Ravenna and played to the vindictive hilt by a stunning Charlize Theron, isn’t above slamming daggers straight into the heart of her target with her own hand, she’s still something a vain harlequin beholden to a mirror hiding her deepest secrets while it also projects her most loathsome fears. As for Snow White (Kristin Stewart), she’s still the fairest of them all, her innate goodness inspiring all who come in contact with her, which makes her the primary target of her vindictive stepmother’s fury.
The main changes come in the form of The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a lumbering ox of a man who is still reeling from the tragic death of his wife. He becomes a central figure in this version, still unable to follow through on the Queen’s command, but instead of delivering her the heart of a pig he becomes Snow White’s chief protector. Added to the mix are Ravenna’s sniveling, almost reptilian brother Finn (Sam Spruell) and the more stereotypically handsome and heroic William (Sam Claflin), son of Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan), the last remaining holdout resisting the Queen’s rule. As for the dwarves, they’re here, too, but to say more about them would ruin the surprise.
First thing to note about Snow White and the Huntsman is that it is visually astonishing. Sanders paints in broad strokes, he and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star, Let Me In) joining forces to craft an eye-popping epic that is singularly unique. From the frozen pristine snow of a wonderland at peace, to the fractured angular extremes of a forest at war with itself, to the golden demonic visage of Ravenna’s magic mirror, this fantasy is a visual feast. One sequence in particular is mind-blowing, but as it involves the dwarves so I’m not going to say anything more other than to proclaim it nothing less than dazzling in its colorful splendor.
The next thing of merit is hardly a surprise. Charlize Theron, robbed of an Oscar nomination for her work in Young Adult, long believed to probably be this film’s chief asset well before the first trailer saw the light of day, is incredible as Ravenna. She dominates the movie, slinking and sliding her way through it with a seductively sinister malevolence that sent chills up my spine. When she isn’t around, when the focus isn’t on her, her absence is painfully apparent, Theron making this immoral royal a figure of pitiable depravity whose ultimate comeuppance is one I almost didn’t want to see transpire.
As for the rest, until the final third of the picture clicks into its unavoidably familiar gear, newcomer Evan Daugherty’s screen story, with a script by Daugherty, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and Hossein Amini (Drive), is an engaging bit of medieval fun. The movie walks in some pretty surreal worlds, mixing in bits of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth here, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke there and Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epics all over the place. There are also faint echoes of John Boorman’s Excalibur and Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story if you can believe it, the whole thing becoming a compendium of fantasy favorites that somehow still manages to dance to its own idiosyncratic tune.
The movie does run out of steam as it enters its climactic stretch. There just isn’t anywhere new or different for the film to go, nothing for it to reveal that isn’t readily expected. It also doesn’t help that as good as Stewart is, and I think she’s terrific, she still can’t hold her own against Theron’s devilishly larger-than-life presence. She gets pushed right off the screen, making her final victory a somewhat hollow one.
I still liked Snow White and the Huntsman far more than I expected I was going to. Sanders shows wonderful directorial chops while Theron catapults herself into villainous lore with a performance for the ages. While not without faults, this feminist take on the classic Grimm tale is undeniably bewitching, and of 2012’s dueling adaptations, both of which ended up worthy of my attention, this is the fairest of the duo and the one I look forward to revisiting in the future.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)