Friday, June 1, 2012

Not Your Grandma's Fairytale: The SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN Review

Every summer we're treated to a smorgasbord of slam-bang action epics, especially of the comic book and science fiction variety. This year alone we've already had THE HUNGER GAMES and MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS, with plenty more on the way in the form of PROMETHEUS, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (which of course I'm most looking forward to) and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. With the exception of Hunger Games and Prometheus the vast majority of these are established franchises or reboots.

SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN is neither. Helmed by Rupert Sanders, himself an unestablished commercial director, this film is quite an extraordinary accomplishment. It is a visual marvel on the level of LORD OF THE RINGS and brings a fresh approach to the "fairy tale" we're all so familiar with (mostly thanks to Disney). But there is nothing whimsical about this story. On the one hand it is a fable of vanity as power, and how one woman's insatiable lust for her own personal glory became her downfall. Flip the coin over, however, and it is a much younger woman's tale of innocence as strength and the courage to hope, and how there are different forms of love in the world that give us the drive to come back from the brink of despair.

I'll be the first to admit, I was cautious at best upon hearing that Kristen Stewart had been cast as the titular apple-biter. But she won me over and reminded me of how good she was before Twilight skewed her acting career (yeah I said it, deal.). Not only is her British accent very good but she conveys a hell of a lot over the course of two hours. It's really a joy to watch her redeem herself, as an actress she seems much freer. For a part of the film she is very subdued, a shut-up girl seeing the world for the first time, but right at the beginning of the third act she lets loose and takes control of the movie with a freaking vengeance.

Equally as jarring is the fantastically evil performance delivered by Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna, Snow White's stepmother (and her father's murderer). When we first meet her she seems very scared and timid, but that is quickly thrown out the window after the wedding (sound familiar fellas?) Ravenna is aided by her creepy brother Finn, and that's putting it nicely. Filling the role of the "Queen's dog," he is far from a simpleton, and their connection runs deeper than we know. But whereas Stewart's Snow White carries herself with a quiet grace and innocent serenity, Theron's Ravenna lashes out with violent, borderline madness and abject volatility. She really does loose herself in this role, and she has a ton of fun doing it.

Rounding out the top three stars is THOR's Chris Hemsworth as Eric, the also-titular Huntsman of the film. This is a precarious role. Hemsworth has a natural knack for a Scottish accent and an ax, but before you go and say that this is a carbon-copy Thor rehash, let me say that Hemsworth gives his most powerful performance to date in his young and rapidly burgeoning career. There's actually not much more I can say about Eric without giving away any spoilers, so I'll hold off on that. But rest assured he rounds out an impressive starring lineup for Sanders' directorial debut.

The design of this film is fantastic. Part medieval, part fantasy, part gothic noir stonemasonry and ethereal supra-Disney creepiness and bliss, this film is without a doubt beautiful. Whereas the castles are, well, castles, the lands outside their walls are characters in and of themselves, and more. The Dark Forest, home to the impressive Troll, is something of a really bad, nightmarish acid trip--indeed, there is a patch of flora that expels smoky spores which, when inhaled, turn the gnarled, brooding branches into true horrors, unleashing the horror of the woods which even had me on edge as I watched. On the other hand the Sanctuary (where Snow, Eric and the Dwarves--more on them in a second!!--find rest after a run-in with the Queen's men) would be more akin to a euphoric shrooming: vibrant greens and bright sunlight, lots of primary colors, and even a mossy snake that I now want! Also, sadly, the now-famous Mirror Man needs a movie of his own, because that guy was just too awesome to have such little screentime. Christopher Obi's deep baritone really hits you.

There are a few things I take issue with, but they are few and very far between. The relationship between Snow and Eric plays a much more central role than the relationship between Snow and Sam Claflin's Prince William, but this is in many ways a strength. I may be a stickler for tradition in storytelling adaptation, but I think Sanders made the right call on this one. Snow White hasn't had a friend all her life, locked away in a tower, and she and Eric bond without things getting complicated. It's played beautifully well from both actors, and adds a new dynamic to the story that wasn't there before. The climactic confrontation at the end is somewhat short-lived, but resonates with a philosophical and moral confrontation between Ravenna and Snow White that takes precedence over the bloodshed. There is a recurring motif of three drops of blood throughout the film, and really that's all that's needed in this battle.

And now, to finish off this review let me say a little something about eight short, hairy, persnickety little bastards that people are going to come out in droves to see this film for: the Eight (you heard me right) Dwarves. I'm a long-time Bob Hoskins fan, and I have to tell you it was a delight to watch him share the screen with the likes of Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes), Toby Jones (Captain America), Ray Winstone (The Departed) and Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz). There is a great sense of camaraderie among the veteran actors, and you can tell they just loved the heck out of getting to be mischievous while still kicking serious amounts of ass. Six dwarves against a whole army? I quite like those odds.

All in all, SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN is the dark-horse best movie this summer. I won't start any flame wars by saying it's better than THE AVENGERS, they're two totally different movies (besides, we all know THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is going to be better anyway!), but I will say that Rupert Sanders has one hell of a career in front of him if he decides to keep doing features. I for one hope he does, because he knocked this one out of the park.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Jeff. The style is a lot darker and grittier than we usually get from these fairy tale stories, but that's not so bad and makes the story more imaginative, even if it runs out of steam by the last act. Theron was a perfect choice as Queen Ravenna and does everything perfect. Or at least that's what I was thinking.