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Review: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

This article was originally published in my movie column at Towleroad

"Fairy tale revisionism" has been rapidly climbing the Hollywood idea chart. In the past few years we've seen Alice in Wonderland, Rapunzel in Tangled, Red Riding Hood, and Snow White in Mirror Mirror (reviewed here).  There are several more on the way including Angelina Jolie as Maleficent terrorizing Sleeping Beauty Elle Fanning. This weekend Snow White returned to theaters for the second time in three months. Her timing is apt since the apple-munching princess is celebrating her 75th big screen anniversary (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937). Why so many fairy tales? Modern Hollywood thrives on branding so the more familiar the movie before it arrives the better. And what's more familiar than fairy tales?

Tale as old as time. 
True as it can be…  ♫

Oops wrong fairy tale. Regret to inform that Snow White and the Huntsman does not have a theme song sung by Angela Lansbury but let's borrow that song anyway as framing device. Snow White and the Hunstman does have a theme song but it's a less catchy dirge-like ballad. One of the seven dwarves coughs it out at a funeral until Florence and the Machine take over on the soundtrack as the heroes rise up against evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in montage. 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. If you can suspend your disbelief that Kristen Stewart is "the fairest of all them all" in a beauty contest with Charlize Theron, read on...

Wow. Surprised you're still here!  Charlize wins all beauty contests. Don't you have eyes?

The movie insists that Ravenna's beauty is the product of dark magic but if movies are elaborate magic tricks than it’s definitely Kristen Stewart as Snow White that's benefiting from studio sorcery. The gifted cinematographer Grieg Frasier (Bright Star, Let Me In) carefully shoots Kristen Stewart with warm magic hour light so that even when she's wet, beaten and terrified, her dark locks frame her half lit porcelain face just so; she’s never looked better.

Barely even friends
. Then somebody bends.

To be fair to the film and the ladies in question, the screenplay muddies the water a bit with what the "fairest of them all?" question means. The question is about physical beauty until it's not; Snow White's innocence, purity and kindness are eventually directly equated with her "fairness". It’s almost as if the Magic Mirror is guiding the story and changing the rules, sabotaging the Queen. Which makes one of the film’s last images, Snow White reflected in the evil artifact, a real winner. 

Audience: Mirror Mirror on the wall who is the...
Magic Mirror: CHARLIZE, Duh!

The rivalry between stepdaughter and stepmother is handled with a more ambiguity than we usually get in these circumstances with a fair bit of sympathy for the devil thrown in. Snow implicitly senses the Queen’s tragic backstory even though it’s only the Queen and her Lurch like brother (Sam Spruell) and the audience (via flashback) who know it. Otherwise though the princess’s relationships are a touch too ambiguous.  Does she love the Huntsman or her childhood Duke Charming (Sam Claflin)? The movie plays coy here, which adds a bit of intrigue to the “love’s first kiss” business but has an unfortunate effect on the movie’s heart, deromanticizing the fairytale. Kisses are usually heroic in fairytales but any and all sexuality, even the purest kind, is as poisonous at that apple this time.

Just a little change. Small, to say the least
Both a little scared. Neither one prepared.
Beauty and the Beast ♫

Point being: Snow White and The Huntsman is handsomely made and even pleasantly if unsuccessfully ambitious. This makes it the best of the recent live action fairy tales though this is not a tough bar to clear. The fairest of them all is the excellent costume design work on Theron’s mesmerizing Queen Ravenna (courtesy of three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood). But it takes more than costumes and one major diva actress to sell a movie. Especially when they’re sidelined from the main action. Theron tries hard (too hard?) to revive the movie’s frequently failing heart with much needed shots of adrenaline but the movie’s relentless sobriety brings too many unintentional laughs. Most classic dramas aren’t shy about having a healthy sense of humor but when genre films want to be taken seriously they tend to err in the opposite direction. First time director Rupert Sanders uses Ravenna quite oddly reducing her to a walking visual effects ad to liven things up (briefly) during commercial breaks from the duller Snow White adventure. The storytelling gets as muddied as Snow White after escaping the castle through its sewers. Worst of all overhead aerial shots of the heroes recall The Lord of the Rings to such an absurd extent that it almost feels like stock footage with Chris Hemsworth CGI'ed over Aragorn and new Dwarf faces superimposed over The Hobbits. 

♪ Ever just the same.
Ever a surprise.
Ever as before. Ever just as sure.
As the sun will rise

All in all this familiar but interestingly reworked fairy tale movie will play better on DVD where its choppiness will feel more organic to the viewing. There’s a lot of Beauty here and four actual beauties (Theron, Hemsworth, Stewart, and Claflin) but revising fairytales is a Beastly task. Queen Ravenna is right in her own sick way. It takes a strong beating heart for any story to achieve immortality. Snow White and the Huntsman’s heart beats faintly and arrhythmically, even when its body is shouting, fighting and otherwise magically engaged.  

Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: It's best hope, and no long shot at all, is Best Costume Design. Longshot wise if the year is weak it could show up in Visual Effects or Original Song. Otherwise it'll prove a no show. Not that AMPAS was its target audience. We just like to talk Oscar is all.)

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    [...]Review: "Snow White and the Huntsman" - Blog - The Film Experience[...]

Reader Comments (20)

I agree with this 100%.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Mirror Mirror is waaaaay a better movie than this one. Love Charlize, but she's almost awful in this one - to me Julia clearly wins the battle (Best Supporting Actress Nomination if this was a fair world) and I´m so happy about it! -. Love Coleen Atwood's work, but Ishioka wins the battle too. And I thought that maybe this was Stewart's best performance to date (you can say "first" instead of "best"...), but preferred Collins. Well, I loved Mirror Mirror naivety, humour, campiness, music, visual style, performances, amazing ending scene, amazing Julia moments... And thought this one was boring to say the least. I loved Greig Faser's work, marvelous Florence's voice in a quite good song, the kisses game followed by Stewart's speech, when it tries to be a classic epic adventure movie...with no charisma in it.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeivith Coast

Will Snow White get 40% of Costume Design category? I haven't seen this one, but Eiko Ishioka MUST win a posthumous Oscar for her work in Mirror Mirror.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

This movie was way too much of a slog for me. I expected Stewart and Hemsworth to pass Viggo Mortenson and son pushing a shopping cart at some point. Even the dwarves stop short of murdering her for no particular reason. It's Snow White. Lighten up.

Also, no more movies where some random person is "the chosen one". First Alice in Wonderland, now this. She is not an especially admirable or capable character. She is just some chick from a dungeon but she is the chosen one so everyone falls down at her feet. Lazy storytelling.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I was bored thoroughly and didn't fall asleep only due to Charlize Theron's shouting. Such a stupid movie, should've read the reviews first.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

Nat-do you think Atwood has a better shot here or for Dark Shadows? And also, is Sandy Powell making a film this year so that Atwood could potentially win?

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Nathaniel, how did you feel about Charlize's performance? I haven't heard much good about the overall film, but I'll see it if Charlize is any good.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin P.

I seem to be a bigger fan of this film than most.

One quick note on the mirror itself in the film. I do find it interesting that the one time we see a character other than Ravenna present while she's talking to it, the mirror-person isn't visible. One could say it has to do with Ravenna's magic, but I think there's a strong sense that the whole 'fairest of them all' bit is in her head due to the crazies.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

Mirror Mirror may have been a better film but it looked so stupid from the trailer that I refused to see it. This version of the story just didn't have enough story at least not enough to be dragged out for so long. I didn't disliked the film and found Stewart more appealing in this than in the Twilight films. Hemsworth was good throughout. The dwarfs also were well cast, and the death of one of them provided one of the few moving parts of the movie, even if it did evoke Lord of the Rings as did the fairy land section. I don't go to many fantasy films so I didn't dislike the film as much as the critics.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

@Gabriel - I didn't find the fairy stuff to be like LOTR; Princess Mononoke was where my head went.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

I thought the film was serviceable, though not much more, and Theron from my perspective wins best in show if only for livening things up whenever she is on screen. Still, any film in which Stewart doesn't remind me of a corpse does deserve some modicum of respect. My feeling is that considering we are all familiar with most of these fairy tales, if one isn't going to do something new with them, then why even bother? Moreover, any movie that even remotely resembles "The Lord of the Rings" in any way just begs comparison, and because that trilogy set the bar so high for this type of fantasy, it just reminds me of how inferior so many subsequent offerings in the genre -- including this one -- have been. I would love to know what kind of movie magic made the dwarfs so believable when those faces belong to average-size actors.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how many flies Stewart has buzzing around in her stomach due to her inability to close her mouth. Did she break her jaw as a child and it didn't heal properly? I don't think I've ever seen her mouth actually shut.

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

For the moment I thought Snow White would save the queen by her kindness and innocent. The screenplay is such a trash. This film was supposed to be better.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjeremie

Great review, Nat. Snow White and the Hunstman was a mixed bag for me too, although I found myself totally caught up the visual splendor (absolutely loved the forest sanctuary scene). Charlize was great in her quieter, grieving moments but the booming theatrical delivery of her lines really grated me.

On the whole I preferred Huntsman to Mirror Mirror except for the ending. I really enjoyed that closing moment in the latter (before the wretched Bollywood musical number) where sweet Snow shows a flash of darkness, offering the apple back to the queen.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpfangirl

I also think Mirror Mirror is better than SWATH. I love Charlize Theron but found her too overacted, her performance was the most disappointed thing because I had high expectations. I prefer by far the crazy and funny Roberts´ performance as the Queen. And definitely Mirror Mirror is a film to claim.

June 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHelen M

I relived the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast.
Warmth in my heart :)

June 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

"If you can suspend your disbelief that Kristen Stewart is "the fairest of all them all" in a beauty contest with Charlize Theron, read on...

Wow. Surprised you're still here! Charlize wins all beauty contests. Don't you have eyes?"

It's inner beauty you superficial, Hollywood jackass!

June 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhey

hey -- if it was inner beauty, Queen Ravenna would never have been "fairest" ;)

June 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

OMG Nathaniel you hit the nail on the head... I love you blog, your charming brand of sarcasm and I look forward to reading more of your posts !

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArieb

Kristen Stewart grunting and gasping incoherently while stumbling through a dark forest, before collapsing on the ground waiting for a handsome man to find her.. Oh wait, where have I seen that before?

Good God.

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterP
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