A few months ago, Julia Roberts starred in a Snow White movie called Mirror, Mirror. The movie looked so horrible that I don't know of anyone who has actually seen it. Then we saw trailers for Snow White and the Huntsman. By comparison this movie seemed much fairer than the one before. But how does the movie actually hold up by itself?
Surprisingly well. What the trailers tell you is that the classic Grimm/Disney tale of Snow White is given a Tolkeinesque makeover. And I have to say that this is actually an improvement. I was never a fan of the Disney cartoon, because I never found the story very compelling. The tale of vanity verses virtue always seemed a little out of my understanding. But this story brings those same essential elements into an action/adventure plot.
The story begins as Ravenna, played by the statuesque Charlize Theron, seduces the king, marries him, kills him, and takes over the land to become the Evil Queen. For reasons that are never made clear, she keeps her step-daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), alive and locked in the tower. Ravenna's beauty and vanity are not ends in themselves, but they serve a political end. She can seduce men of power and darkly enchant her kingdoms through her beauty. Snow White's kingdom is but the latest in a series to fall to her seemingly immortal reign. As her powers wane, her magic mirror reveals that Snow White's heart, if consumed, will give her true immortality. However, when Snow White escapes to the dark forrest, Ravenna must get an expert tracker, the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), to find her and bring her to the Evil Queen. The Huntsman is a rough, world-weary drunkard whose experience of loss make him protective of the young princess. The two then proceed on an adventure through the woods to find help to bring down Ravenna.
First time director Rupert Sanders should be commended for his job here. He knows how to manipulate images with simple things like color correction. When Ravenna takes over, all of the color is drained from the characters and the sets. This dreary mood-setter makes any vivid pigments pop out as visually arresting. I also love his his choice to make go with a more exotic design for the creatures and costumes, giving the film a unique look.
The most notable performance of the movie is Charlize Theron as Ravenna. Theron played opposite Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, where Pacino's Satan shouted his lines and chewed scenery like it was taffy. It seems that she picked up his style for playing ultimate evil by READING ALMOST ALL OF THE LINES FROM HER SCRIPT AS IF THEY WERE ALL WRITTEN IN CAPS. She does have moment of quiet subtlety in the beginning, or with her creepy, albino brother. But for the most part the calculation seems to be “Regal + Evil = Loud.” This is not to say that this is necessarily bad, but it can be a bit distracting. This is especially true since it is in the quieter moments that we find some understanding of why she is so evil.
But I think people may overlook Chris Hemsworth's portrayal of the Huntsman. I am convinced that he is on his way to being an A-List star, and this movie solidifies that. He could easily be written of as another action-tough guy: basically Thor with a Scottish accent. But while remaining completely rugged and masculine, he makes his character incredibly vulnerable and charming. He kept reminding me of a young Sean Connery. I don't mean Connery from his early career, but the Connery from movies like The Rock, but put into a younger body. He has to carry most of the emotional weight of the film because Kristen Stewart has a slight problem as Snow White. I don't want to be unfair to her. When she concentrates on her performance, she is actually quite good, and I bought into her transformation from captive princes to Snow of Arc in full armor. But when Stewart is not concentrating, she falls into this vacant expression that takes me out of her story.
The movie starts off a bit slow, but it thankfully gets better as it progresses. The introduction of new characters like the Huntsman, William (for all intents and purposes, the Prince Charming of the story), the village of scarred women, and the dwarves enrich, rather than slow down the narrative. I should make special note of the dwarves here on two levels.
First, the special effects that turned these regular-sized actors into dwarves was flawless. If you want to see it done badly, check out Fred Claus. But here, I love that they are not just shrunken, like hobbits, but their bodies are of dwarf-appropriate proportions. Second, they add much comic relief and heart to the movie. Their combined charisma smooths out the transition from the second to third act and is a delight to see them on screen. It was brilliant to cast such rough and tumble actors like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, and Nick Frost (of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).
On a side note, I very much enjoyed the small nods to Christianity in the movie. Very often these elements are pushed out. Or if they are brought up at all it is for ridicule. But early in the movie, Snow White grabs a poor straw doll she has made of her late-father and she prays the Lord's Prayer for him. A good friend of mine, let's call him Pluckarious, was telling me that one of his favorite aspects of the book A Canticle for Lebowitz and CS Lewis' Space Trilogy, is that is assumed the reality of the faith. He did not mean it so much as that the faith is true, but that it is really here and present in our world an essential part of our civilization and our world. Snow White and the Huntsman has many Christian motifs, but it also makes subtle references to the Church that are greatly appreciated by someone of my perspective.
The biggest problem with the movie, besides the over-use of shakey-cam, is the lack of some character resolution. With the close relationship Snow White as between the gruff and beastly Huntsman and the slender, sensitive William, a love triangle emerges which is not at all reminiscent of anything from the Twilight books, so why would you ask? But this relationship dilemma is never fully explored or resolved. The sequel has been green-lit, so I can only assume that this was saved as fodder for that movie's drama.
And I will happily see the sequel if it is as good as this one. The action was good and the adventure was worthwhile. The main themes of Snow White remain in this update. Real beauty is within. But this time that beauty is not only found in Snow White's kindness, but also her courage.
4 out of 5 stars