– Summary –
Director : Rupert Sanders
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Clafin, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Lily Cole, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris, Noah Huntley.
Approx Running Time : 127 Minutes
Synopsis: Escaping from imprisonment by the evil Queen Ravenna, the princess Snow White embarks on a journey through the Dark Forest to unite the people of her land in rising up and defeating the Queen and reclaiming her rightful place on the throne.
What we think : Stunningly gorgeous, handsomely mounted – and yet frustratingly overblown – adventure-drama ticks all the boxes of the classic Grimm’s Fairytale, yet buckles under the weight of the fantasy/action mix and the intent to “tell the real story” with so many loose ends it just falls apart. Ill-defined characters, a woefully underwhelming performance by Charlize Theron, and a lot of missed opportunities dog this film and end up undermining the initial goodwill I was willing to give it. Frivolous fun, but ultimately a dullard of a film with no serious purpose.
Bella Swan becomes the fairest in the land.
2012 will probably be remembered more for the backlash of frustration for Prometheus than it will for delivering two movies about Snow White – this one, and Mirror Mirror – but after seeing this movie I can’t help but feel that Snow White & The Hunstman is actually the worst of the more frustratingly underwhelming films released thus far this year. I actually felt more annoyed with this movie than I did about Prometheus, even though I shouldn’t have. Ostensibly trying to de-mythologize Fairy Tale characters by transplanting them into a world not too far removed from our own past, and amp up the King Arthur attitude which seems to have swept fairy stories in the last few years, this take on Snow White is a decently mounted production that comes unstuck with a single issue: the script. The story is as old as time itself, and we’ve had plenty of iterations grace our screens down the years (Disney’s take on the story being the most popular ever, even now) so you have to wonder which studio executive thought making this film was even a requirement: regardless of whether the film even needed to be made, the end result is something of a mixed bag for fans of quality cinema.
The princess of Tabor, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is imprisoned in the palace tower for years after the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) slithers her way into the King’s life and kills him, usurping the throne and casting a pall of death and destruction across the land. When Snow escapes and runs into the Dark Forest, the Queen tasks a drunken Huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) with pursuing her and returning the young girl to her clutches: the Queen is living with a powerful spell that keeps her young, although she must steal the life energy of other young folk to do so. Ravenna’s brother, Finn (Sam Spruell) accompanies the angry Huntsman into the forest, before the tables turn and Snow White begs the Huntsman to spare her in order to find the last of her late father’s soldiers, living in a castle beyond the forest’s dark grasp. As Snow White and the Huntsman journey through the forest, they encounter 8 dwarfs (including Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Nick Frost, among others) who decide to help them when they realize Snow White is the princess, whom everyone thinks was killed when the Queen took control.
Minor Spoilers Ahead.
What is it with movie studios trying to modernize all the old classics? Throw a bunch of money at the screen, hit the audience with self-referencing pop-culture touchstones and cast a slew of well-known faces in iconic roles and expect everything to simply fall into place? Unfortunately, as Snow White & The Huntsman will attest to, simply throwing money at a production doesn’t guarantee a quality product. The basis of any – every – good film comes down to one simple element: a decent script. No film, not even one with a bazillion dollars worth of blue people and state of the art 3D whizz-bangery (are you reading this, James Cameron?) can overcome a deficit of quality scripting, relying on the effects and the audience appreciation for the cast to save the day. Snow White & The Huntsman, while certainly a handsomely mounted and epic-in-scale production, is hamstrung by a script which seems to try and shoehorn in a multitude of genre tropes at the expense of cohesive character arcs and fully realized sub-plots. There’s so many problems with this film, stemming from the three-person screenplay’s inadequacies, that it’s hard to know if this film is actually worthwhile recommending.
The story itself is one we’re intimately familiar with – young girl hated by a cruel Queen escapes persecution into the forest where she shacks up with 7 short dudes (who don’t bone her, amazing) and is tricked into sleep by eating poisoned fruit, before rising from her coma by the kiss of a handsome prince. That’s the Disney version; truth be told, it’s a fairly watered down version of the original Grimms version, at least as far as the adult scary overtones go. Snow White & The Huntsman follows the original story – and indeed the Disney version – in only the most minor of ways, from what I understand. The key elements we know and love are present: the apple, the dwarfs, the magic mirror; yet they’re all given a slightly skewed entry into the mythology this time around, with the screenplay intent on humanizing each character and trying to make even the fantasy elements “real”, although this ethos is thrown out about half way through the story anyway. The screenplay, by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, tries to turn Snow White into a Lord Of The Rings-lite epic, a problematic approach that causes the film to stumble and sway under the enormous weigh of its own expectations. Snow White, as a character, is turned into a more muscular female heroine, ill-content to stay cooped us as the emblematic princess archetype; here, she wields a sword instead of a song, leads an army of men instead of woodland creatures, and engages in a weird, awkwardly scripted love triangle with the two main male leads this film contains.
Before I get onto the casting and other issues I had with the film, I really do want to focus my attention on the script’s major issues. The film tries to accommodate too many ideas that it can’t – or wont – finish off. The script tries to give the Evil Queen, here named Ravenna (which is cool because her raven motif is actually pretty creepy!) a backstory to make her somewhat sympathetic – in this films story, the Queen is a victim of circumstance herself, since she’s portrayed as a child being bereaved and given a spell to keep her young by her soon-to-be-killed mother, and while I understand the intent to make her role more empathetic for the audience, it actually goes some way to undermining the “badness” the character needs to outweigh the sheer “goodness” of Snow White. The script also has issues when it tries to get all Fairy Story on us. The majority of the film is set in a decidedly un-fantasy reality, with mud and blood and death blossoming across the screen in a sea of gorgeous cinematography, until Snow White and her gang of dwarfs and the Hunstman arrive at some hidden Fairy Garden where the mythical, magical and fantastical come to life, and the film blunders through it like an angry bull trying to escape a burning china shop. There’s a disconnect between the reality the film presents us with and this Narnian-styled fantasy the writers try and embed into the world itself that jars a lot, although after Snow and Co are chased from this hidden world by the Bad Guys they’re never touched on again. Which is both good for the film and bad for the story. Why introduce this stuff if it means nothing to the outcome of the story (apparently Snow White is this world’s living, breathing heartbeat of Life, while the Queen represents all things Death, a physical manifestation of both elements of our reality which are haphazardly developed as key fundamentals in the story) and spend a great deal of time showing us moss-covered turtles and Gollum-esque Pixies and enormous white deer, when once they vanish off-screen they’re never spoken of again?
The script also introduces a “new” character to the mythology: a second male lead in the form of William, a childhood friend of Snow’s who is unaware she’s been trapped in the tower all these years when the Queen and her dark army usurped the kingdom. William is a character with absolutely no use whatsoever to the story – he’s an archer of Legolas-level skill, and holds a sense of anger at his abandonment of Snow to the clutches of the Queen when he was younger, but as a character he’s so ancillary to the story, so “grey area” in the overall scheme of things that he’s immediately forgettable. Eric, the Huntsman, in direct opposite to William, is central to Snow’s flight from the Queen, and becomes more a friendship bond and emotional touchstone to both the audience and Snow herself. William is just a forgettable addition that detracts from the relationship between Snow and The Huntsman. When Snow is forced into a coma by the Queen (who, I might add, at one point transforms into an avatar of William to trick her), the real William laments over her “corpse” before the Huntsman delivers an even more impassioned speech when she’s “lying in state”, ready to be farewelled. The film can’t seem to figure out if Snow’s in love with William, or the Huntsman, or either of them at all, which leaves Snow ending up a shrewish Queen Elizabeth I type character by films’ end.
The introduction of some backstory to the Evil Queen’s context is ill-advised and ill-fated. In trying to give her a story, a reason for being, the screenwriters have actually lessened her cruelty as counterpoint to her actions, and undermines the impetus of the conflict between her and Snow; the lack of direction and coherence in the Queen’s character, as well as Snow White’s, just causes everything said about either of them to fall flat from the actors mouths, and it’s a shame this occurs due to an insistence by modern filmmakers to explain everything. Disney just had her be thoroughly, irredeemably evil, with no sense of any good within her at all, and it worked superbly. Why we needed a Queen with a story behind her, when the focus should have been on… you know, Snow White and the Huntsman, is beyond my ability to understand.
Indeed, there’s simply too much material the script tries to cover to make a coherent film out of. Fairies, mysterious mirrors who manifest only to the Queen (a nice touch, if underutilized and never once creepy), a (very cool) troll who appears for five minutes, roars and then is never seen or mentioned again, the never-explained three drops of blood motif, Eric’s morbid back-story, some wobbly life-and-death proselytizing and an inherent ill-timed sense of magic that just doesn’t connect with the rest of the movie; Snow White & The Huntsman has enough material to make about three films, if only this film was large enough to handle it. It’s not. But it tries.
The major positive to the film is the introduction, and physical execution of, the dwarfs – the film starts off with 8 of the little fellows, before events transpire to cut that down to 7 – who I must admit keep this film from falling over completely in the second act. The dwarfs are portrayed by a roster of famous faces – led by Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones and Nick Frost – superimposed onto actual tiny people (what’s the current PC way of saying dwarfs without being offensive?) and it’s these guys who provide some welcome comic relief as well as plenty of genuine emotion for the rest of the film. Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane lead the tiny dudes with gravitas and presence, and although the majority of them are near-barren 2-dimensional creations (I think we have a connection with them thanks to countless childhood memories of the Disney-fied versions – Dopey, Angry, Bashful etc etc, instead of an actual empathy with them as personified by the actors in this film) they bring the film to life when all the life was being sucked out of it.
On the casting front, the film does pretty well with the trio of leading actors – Stewart, Theron and Hemsworth. Kristen Stewart, as I alluded to earlier, wouldn’t have been my first choice for Snow White, although as an ass-kicking Princess she certainly looks the part. Her “stirring” Braveheart-style speech about taking charge of your destiny or whatever faux-emotional hook she uses to get everyone to don armor and go fight Queen Ravenna is actually cringe-worthy to watch: not because Stewart does a bad job (she’s really pretty good) but because what she says is just so damnably stupid. And it comes from nowhere – one minute Snow’s a skittish, frightened fugitive who wouldn’t feel comfortable holding a blade to somebody’s throat, and the next she’s flinging a sword through flesh like she’s Aragorn on a bender – it’s a deficit in the scripting that prevents her arc from becoming truly organic, and ends up just feeling like the writers had run out of ideas and needed to finish the film early. Chris Hemsworth, fluctuating accent aside, is actually the best performer in the film, delivering a performance with nuance and soul. His role, much like Stewarts, is limited by some ham-handed writing and back-story, but he more than holds his own in both the dramatic and action-oriented sequences. Thor, it would seem, kicks ass in any film.
The most frustrating character – and actor – in the film is Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. Theron is gorgeous, that much is certain, and she can usually play a total bitch with conviction and truth. Yet, the Queen here isn’t a bitch as such, she’s just evil. There’s a difference, and Theron can’t bridge the gap between bitchy snipe and all-out Evil Queen. The filmmakers have bulked up her character with so much baggage – none of which is either explained or expanded on in any meaningful way – that Theron seems to sink beneath the weight of it. Her screaming and screeching at her minions, and her on-screen brother, Finn (played deliciously by Sam Spruell, in a terrifically malevolent performance) seems more petulant that overly evil, and it’s a shame, because I think had Theron been given license to truly go overboard, the character could have swung for the fences and hit them. But having something more than simple evilness behind her eyes undoes the emotion we feel for her, and it’s just annoying. Equally as annoying is Sam Clafin as William, who minces about in his nothing role with the baffling star power of his similarly baffling nothing-role in the 4th Pirates Of The Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides. I feel sorry for Clafin here, since his character achieves nothing, does nothing, and means nothing to the overall story save that he’s a secondary emotional catapult for Snow White’s arc; I’m sure he’s a solid actor, but he’s given nothing to work with. I guess I was just annoyed with the character he played, not the actor himself; Clafin tried hard, but it’s not his fault I didn’t care about him.
As I mentioned earlier, the film looks stunning – the production values look astonishing, the visual effects range from good to excellent ( the dwarf effects are excellent, the Fairy World effects are good but still effect-y), and the cast do their best with the material they’re given. Musically, the score by James Newton-Howard is appropriately epic and widescreen, although hardly memorable; at times, it feels like he’s riffing on Hans Zimmer, but that’s perhaps giving Zimmer too much influential credit. Many kudos to DOP Greig Fraser, whose lensing of this film makes it look truly magical – the colors are vibrant and dazzling, and the photography is simply stunning – and I think his work here is extraordinary. He makes even the grittiest, grimiest prison cell look appealing. His lighting, especially of the campfire sequence as Snow and Co arrive at the Fairy Land, is particularly good.
Snow White & The Huntsman isn’t a terrible film, in the sense that the look and feel of the film is in any way off, but there’s too many problems with the script and the overabundance of ideas (none of which actually amount to anything in the end) to make me forgive this film’s inadequacies. Sure, there’s plenty to admire from a superficial point of view, but if you dig into the film’s underlying script issues and lack of coherent narrative objectives, you’ll see that in the end, it’s all style and very little substance. Which is a shame, because this film had so much going for it. I guess we’ll just have to stick with sparkly vampires for the time being, right?