Snow White and the Huntsman
Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini (Story: The Brothers Grimm)
Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Claflin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Vincent Regan, Noah Huntley
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality
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Walt Disney was a master at manipulation. He took some of the most gruesome and frightening fairy tales ever devised and crafted them into friendly, inviting animated features that drew audiences of all kinds to the theaters. As those tales begin emerging with live action treatments, a culture demanding more realism, more sensuality and more violence have shaped the marketplace into one where a film like Snow White and the Huntsman can thrive, in spite of being a far cry from even the worst of Disney's most familiar efforts.
We are all familiar with the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney's 75-year-old masterpiece. There are few children today who were not raised on Disney's vision of a beautiful young princess pursued by a wicked queen who wants her dead so that she can always remain the fairest of all women. In this new vision of the story, not to be confused with the light-hearted Tarsem Singh film Mirror Mirror from earlier this year, The queen, played with too much vigor by Charlize Theron, has manipulated her way into the king's bedchamber where she kills him and takes over his kingdom, imprisoning his daughter in the dungeons. As Snow White, played with too little emotion by Kristen Stewart, comes of age, the queen discovers not only that Snow White is the only person alive who can kill her, Snow's heart will not only bring her eternal life, but eternal youth and beauty in tandem.
Fearing for her life, Snow White flees into the dark forest where a handsome, drunkard tracker (Chris Hemsworth) is hired to find her and bring her back. Through various twists of fate, the two end up fleeing the forest while the queen and her sycophant brother pursue them. Along the way, Snow meets the seven dwarfs and her childhood best friend William (Sam Claflin). All of these lead them towards the ultimate expected conclusion, a confrontation with the queen.
The story is ageless and entirely too familiar, making much of the film seem predictable because of that fact. However, it's easy to blame our personal familiarity for the uninspired methods in which the film is told. There isn't a shot in the film from the spinning God's-eye views to the epic cross-country journey longshots that doesn't feel stale. Much of this formulaic camera work can be attributed to first-time director Rupert Sanders. Boasting no creative credits in film or television prior, it's obvious his lack of experience made him feel like a kid in a candy store, abusing and manipulating every classic style element he could find to keep his audience entertained without engaging them.
What's worse is Sanders has no skill with actors. Even typically reliable thespians like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones (all of whom play dwarfs in the film) are like paisley designs on yellowing wallpaper. Colorful and chaotic, but two-dimensional. The only performer who manages to survive the film virtually unscathed is Hemsworth whose experience with better directors as Thor has helped him play the brutish lout with a heart of gold. It's such a lived-in performance, I almost wonder if he was performing in front of a green screen for another film and the footage got mixed in by mistake. Theron's grasping clawing witch is potent at times, but without a stable directorial force, she lets herself fly free, creating what might almost be considered caricature of the queen.
But even the best actors in the film can be seen positively in some way, which cannot be said for the star herself. Apart from forgettable roles in Into the Wild and Adventureland, I haven't seen Stewart on the big screen. There's a meme floating around the internet where the various emotions of Kristen Stewart are posed as a single picture with different headings. Amusing for sure, but not until now have I really understood just how pinpoint accurate those assessments are. From her first scene, holed up in her prison cell, there's a lifeless, mechanical quality to her performance. Every emotion from awe to fear to sadness is delivered with the same wide-eyed, mouth-ajar gaze that is too frequently captured in close-up. The most alive her character feels is when she's lying dead on her bier as Hemsworth's Huntsman mourns over it. It would be easy to say that the film fails because of the horrendous miscasting and might have been better with any number of better young actresses.
Snow White and the Huntsman isn't a complete failure. Apart from Hemsworth's warm performance, the film is gorgeous. While Snow White is stuck in the same dingy dress for most of the film, those characters around her, most notably the queen, are enshrined in some stunning costumes. Colleen Atwood has a lifetime's experience clothing any number of fantasy characters, giving the designs originality but keeping them familiar to the audience. Atwood is a queen in this industry and every inch of her majesty is on the screen. Not far below her achievement is the marvelous production design, crafted by Dominic Watkins. For not having done any work in the fantasy genre before, his recreation of the pseudo-medieval environment is impressive. Where beauty is needed, he works magic to craft some awe-inspiring settings. When sorrow is called for, his designs are somber and reflective. While the visual effects are rather transparent at times (the initial expository scene between the dwarfs and Snow White and the Huntsman is poorly constructed and obvious), the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at.
Of all the missteps the film made, it would be easy to foist the issues on the poorly-cast Stewart; yet, choosing Stewart might have actually been the perfect decision for the film. Throughout the film, I was struck by one simple idea. Like it's lead, Snow White and the Huntsman is beautiful on the outside, but hollow and emotionless on the inside. Stewart has inadvertently become symbolic of all that is wrong with the film. And not just the film, but the industry as a whole. For years, studios have been focused heavily on finding the most mind-numbing projects to shepherd before its doting audiences, hoping to squeeze every last cent from a public that has been growing less discerning as each year passes. Sure, there are a number of films that have bucked this trend, but even recent Best Picture winners like The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire lack any real depth of emotion, preferring to focus on a thin veneer of sentimentality hoping the audience will not only fail to notice, but will accept and further lower their standards for future outings. Stewart could easily be the figurehead of a movement, thus explaining why she was the perfect selection for a film as blatantly money-hungry as this.
Re-imagined fairy tales will certainly become more prevalent after Snow White and the Huntsman, but will they be carbon copies or can they possibly improve on the foundations set by Snow White. Let's hope the latter, because I'm not looking forward to more of the same.
Probables: Costume Design
Potentials: Original Score, Original Song, Art Direction
June 3, 2012