Friday, June 1, 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman

Review by Pete Roche

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho! 

Snow White has been re-imagined countless times in fiction and film.  1937’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS was not only Disney’s first full-length picture, but the first-ever full color cartoon movie.  Instant classic.  Heck, even the ghoulish GREMLINS took a break from tearing up Kingston Falls to enjoy watching it.  More recently, Indian director Tarsem Singh interpreted the Brothers Grimm fable as the musical comedy MIRROR, MIRROR, with Phil Collins’ daughter starring as the titular teen.

Universal Pictures’ SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN returns us to “Once upon a time” but introduces a more mature Snow White, played by TWILIGHT’s Kristen Stewart.  Fledgling director Rupert Sanders makes other significant changes: Two suitors vie for the maiden’s hand this time out instead of just one, and there’s an extra little person whistling while he works—bringing our dwarf count to eight. 

After marrying and murdering benevolent King Magnus, the beautiful but cursed Ravenna (Charlize Theron) imprisons his daughter in a tower and rules with an iron fist.  Her reign proves as toxic to the king’s realm as a poisoned apple to a princess. 

Seven years later, drunken widower huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) is sent to capture the escaped Snow, whose heart Ravenna must consume to become immortal.  But sympathetic Eric instead helps Snow navigate the treacherous Dark Forest, where the undergrowth teems with creepy-crawlies and the muck swallows horses like the quicksand in NEVERENDING STORYRavenna’s subservient, bowl-haired brother is then dispatched to pursue both fugitives.  Meanwhile, the wicked queen solicits advice from a gilded “mirror, mirror on the wall” that morphs into a humanoid (not unlike the liquid metal monster from TERMINATOR 2).  The soldiers in her phantom army shatter like smoked glass when struck.

The Dark Forest is a mottled, charcoal gray quagmire whose hallucinogenic pollens turn gnarled trees into snakes and gargoyles—at least in Snow’s mind.  Conversely, the peaceful woods of “Sanctuary” are a Candy Land of vivid hues concealing moss-covered tortoises and toadstools with inquisitive eyes.  Pastel-colored ferries flit about or hitch rides on the backs of rabbits and badgers, and an enchanted white elk (perhaps an oracle) greets Snow and her handsome escort.

A band of beer-swilling dwarves pledges allegiance to our heroes following a deciduous debacle of Ewok-ian proportions.  Despite his cloudy cataracts, old Muir (Bob Hoskins) sees there’s more to Snow than she lets on.  A Tolkien fellowship is formed: Stalwart Beith (Ian McShane), garrulous Gort (Ray Winstone), and childlike Gus (Brian Gleeson) rally their pint-sized troupe to help Snow win back the kingdom.  Snow’s former childhood sweetheart—Prince William (Sam Claflin)—also tags along, completing a potential love triangle.  He’s an able archer, but comes off like an earnest pizza delivery boy next to the chiseled, axe-wielding Eric.
Embittered Queen Ravenna—who sports more hairstyles here than Princess Leia—is sinister but sensual.  Her elegance is tempered by ruthlessness; she glides around her chambers with a feline grace, her gestures fluid and deliberate (when she’s not having a tantrum).  She wears bejeweled talons, siphons the life energy from teenage prisoners, and rages at the hired help.  Her magic can heal as well as inflict wounds—a talent she reserves for herself and her doting brother. 

Director of photography Greig Fraser serves up a feast for the eyes, panning over lush fields and misty mountains and tiptoeing viewers through forests both dreary and dazzling.  The climactic battle brings us to scenic Marloes Sands at Pembrokeshire, where craggy rocks jut from promontories overlooking the Atlantic surf.  If the beach looks familiar, it’s because you probably saw it in one of several other sword-and-sorcery epics set there (HARRY POTTER, ROBIN HOOD).  And the filmmakers’ seamless insertion of digitally-reduced actors into real-world environs is something of a coup.    

Sanders achieves a visual poetry with slow-motion shots of Ravenna bathing in milk and transforming into a flock of ravens (or was it a murder of crows?)—and reintegrating by writhing in a puddle of gooey black tar.  The queen must pillage souls to maintain a youthful aura, lest overuse of her powers cause her centuries-old skin to wrinkle (they didn’t have Oil of Olay in medieval times).  But Theron—who won an Academy Award for her work in MONSTER—also channels the woman’s frustration, anger, and sadness the old fashioned way.  Acting!  Particularly with her eyes.   

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t match the exhilarating effects.  The dwarves add levity, but the dialogue here is generally banal.  Stewart’s pretty-but-uninspired Snow is nearly flushed from the movie by Theron’s cool charisma, leaving only Hemsworth to balance the onscreen tension with his thick accent and rugged physicality.  Indeed, hunky Hems is the selling point for this film’s target demographic: Young women eager for a little romance with their fairy tales.  The weak script will leave girls (and some guys) identifying with Snow not because they’d like to suppress evil, save the kingdom, and actualize their destiny, but simply because they’d like to be with THOR

Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t enough to keep the bloom on this rose.  Still, SWATH is elegant-looking and action-packed enough to satisfy anyone up for some troll-trouncing and castle-storming. It’s JOAN OF ARC-meets-ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  With dwarves!  2 ½ stars.

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