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Film Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012; Directed by Rupert Sanders)

By all initial appearances an earnest fairy-tale epic featuring elements of cinematic vision from a neophyte feature director, Snow White and the Huntsman winds up instead as an unmoving studio product that is rather more middling and compromised than promised. For its many good if not exactly brilliant ideas, it generally smacks of a movie conceived of and executed by committee, with references, borrowings, marketing ploys, and cynical genre mainstays all front and centre in the final product.

Though it boasted decent box office, Snow White and the Huntsman is destined to be better known in pop culture as the movie that broke up the tween-dream romantic attachment of female lead Kristen Stewart and her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. Stewart’s affair with director Rupert Sanders is such common knowledge that his many lingering close-ups of her oddly-compelling pouting visage cannot help but take on alternate meanings than those advanced by the text of the film itself. It does not help that the movie is hardly much more interesting than the thousand tabloid stories its Helen-esque starlet and her directorial Paris launched.

The film adapts the Brothers Grimm folktale (which inspired Walt Disney’s revolutionary 1937 animated feature) into the sort of mythical fantasy quest narrative that marks Hollywood’s current geek ascendancy (of which Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is an obvious high-water mark as well as a clear and specific influence on this film). Snow White is a carefree princess in a lovely, prosperous kingdom who first sees her beloved mother pass away and then watches her kingly father become ensnared, murdered, and overthrown by the ambitious Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Snow White grows to young adulthood (at which point Stewart plays her) imprisoned in a tower of this malevolent new queen’s castle (the design of which combines Hogwarts, Minas Tirith, and Mont Saint-Michel in France) while the once-fertile land around her dies.

Ravenna, you see, is marked by an insatiable desire to remain forever youthful and beautiful. She replenishes her stores of young aura by bathing in milk, magically sucking the years from fetching peasant maidens, stopping the hearts of ruggedly handsome rebels, snacking on the tiny tickers of birds, and even draining the bloom from the natural world near her castle. Theron relishes every cornpone moment of this; she’s a deliciously unironic baddie, her old-fashioned cackling-witch villainy resisting even a half-hearted flashback suggesting a motivating survival impulse. She stalks her sepulchral sorcerer’s tower chamber like Saruwoman the Blonde, and taunts Snow White in their final stand-off by standing inside a fire (perhaps taking a certain Garth Brooks song a bit too literally), screaming out: “You cannot defeat me!”

The artificial youth element of the tale feels more specifically critical of the Hollywood image factory in the age of botox than it did in the 1930s, and casting the naturalistic public image iconoclast Stewart as the evil queen’s nemesis throws these themes into sharper relief. Still, this element is left entirely dormant and inert in the subtext, going nowhere in a metaphorical sense. At any rate, the plot grinds on, as Snow White escapes the tower and rides clear of Ravenna’s black riders on a unsaddled white horse (like the later overhead shots of a party of nine companions trekking along the lips of canyons and slopes of mountains, this chase sequence feels like a direct homage to Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring). She gets lost in the Dark Forest (you can hear the capitalization), at which point Hemsworth’s titular Huntsman (not sure you can hear the capitalization on that one, but let’s roll with it) is drafted to track her down.

If by my life, death, or suspension of personal hygiene, I can protect you, I will.

Hemsworth is best in the role of a bluff beefcake whose physical superiority does not always avail him best (witness Thor), but here goes more for the drunken, haunted underdog in search of redemption, clearing this low bar by a few feet at least. He strikes up a fondness for the girl he’s hunting when she reminds him of his deceased wife, and elects to protect her from the queen’s minions, the chief of which is Finn (Sam Spruell), an albino racist thug with a eunuch haircut who also happens to be Ravenna’s brother and shares vicariously in her youthening abilities. Joined eventually by Snow White’s childhood sweetheart William, now grown into a skilled bowman with zero sense of humour (perfect for fine-looking stick-in-the-mud Sam Claflin), and a posse of (yup) seven dwarves, this group adventures their way to a final battle of resistance against Ravenna’s evil reign.

The vaunted visual feast that was promised in trailers and pre-release promotion never quite comes to fruition in the film itself, although there are striking images clustered around certain sequences nonetheless. A hallucinogenic nightmare in the Dark Forest afflicts Stewart with swarming beetles and oozing black tree barnacles, a gothic vision countered by a blossoming faerie wonderland which includes an arresting tortoise, its shell encrusted with verdant moss and wildflowers. Mostly, though, Sanders returns repeatedly to showy images of fragmentation and dissolution. Theron’s evil queen fragments into a murder of crows, her jet-black dark-magic army shatters into razor-sharp obsidian shards, a white hart with birch-branch antlers transforms into fluttering butterflies, and Stewart’s egregious attempt at a British accent dissolves into audience laughter (to apportion criticism fairly, Hemsworth’s Scots brogue is not much better).

In a movie chocked full of showcase CGI (a Del Toro-esque bridge troll, the molten-gold hooded figure from Ravenna’s prophetic mirror, the obsidian armies), the most convincing and impressive effect is also by far the weirdest. The seven dwarves are played not by the usual little people, but by full-sized and recognizable British thesps (Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, and Brian Gleeson, ginger son of Brendan) whose faces are digitally transposed onto the bodies of little people.

I warned you not to eat fruit from Walmart, my dear.

It’s a bizarre and rather disconcerting effect, but never anything but seamless; it makes one wonder why Peter Jackson has persisted with old-fashioned forced-perspective tricks in his Hobbit films, if the technology is available to achieve a similar effect with computers. Nothing of note is done with the dwarves (there’s a few bad poop jokes and one of them perishes heroically), but they do look damned good. Still, it’s a little disappointing that the final role of Hoskins’ long and varied screen career (he retired after Snow White wrapped to deal with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease) sees his face uncannily grafted onto a four-foot-tall body.

But then, disappointment is the dominant feeling engendered by Snow White and the Huntsman. What could have been, with a little more talent, ambition, and originality, haunts the film as it unfolds in grim creative half-measures. At the film’s shallow core is Stewart, not so much its star or even its central performer as its gesticulating queen bee. She certainly doesn’t say much of consequence or pathos, although she musters surprising force in her rousing pre-battle St. Crispin’s Day speech to her rebel troops (the words are a touch more poetic than the boilerplate clichés as well, though still hardly the Bard).

With her upturned nose and beaver chompers framed in a pale face by unruly raven hair, there’s little doubt that Stewart maintains a striking look, a certain model presence at the heart of the film that’s supposed to be all about the persistent triumph of her beauty and luminosity. But Stewart is not luminous, really. She’s the Everygirl, only maybe a bit prettier; at least that’s what her appeal as Twilight’s Bella was supposedly based upon, to what limited degree I am able to understand it. Casting the Everygirl as the ethereal princess of destiny is perhaps not the biggest problem facing Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s emblematic enough of the film’s numerous, crippling pitfalls to stand as its defining failure.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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