A Droid Premiere: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
As a word of warning, there is no way that I can properly review this film without talking about the story in detail. I usually don’t like to do this for films under the A Droid Premiere banner, because I know that most of us haven’t seen them. But this film is a little different. There are the makings of a brilliant film here, but there are a few reasons why it is not. In lieu of a “It was good, but it has problems.” non-committal review, I deemed it necessary to reveal a substantial amount of the story. Now I leave it in your capable hands to decide if that matters or not. I suspect most won’t care, but I provide this disclaimer in the name of covering my ass. Read on.
Fairy tales are the new comic books. With Hollywood exhausting the most popular and recognisable funny book heroes to within an inch of their life, a new library of ready made characters and stories are sought. And with Tim Burton’s detestable Alice in Wonderland somehow draining the world wide economy of over a billion US dollars, the result was inevitable. The most obvious candidate for adaptation is Snow White, which is why we’ve received two in two months. I didn’t see ‘Mirror, Mirror’ because it stars Julia Roberts, second only to Nicole Kidman on my personal list of grudges to uphold. I also didn’t see it because it looked like garbage. But ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ was a bit of a surprise. I had no great interest in it until I saw the trailer. The film appeared to be nothing like I expected it to be. Visually, at least. That, and the presence of Charlize Theron got me in the door.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom of prosperity. Ruled by King Magnus and Queen Eleanor, they bore a child of famous beauty. Raven black hair, blood red lips and skin as white as snow. The child was named Snow White, and she would one day become the fairest of them all. But a darkness was to befall the kingdom. Upon the Queens untimely death, King Magnus lead his army into battle, and there saved the life of the beautiful Ravenna. Such was Ravenna’s insurmountable beauty that the King married her the very next day. Alas it was all an elaborate ruse. Ravenna, having poisoned to the King in his chamber, seized control of the kingdom and imprisoned Snow White in the castle dungeons.
Many years passed. Slowly the land died, and its people suffered. Queen Ravenna however, showed no signs of the intervening years. She was as beautiful as always, and the fairest in the kingdom. Until one day, that is, when she consulted her mirror, only to learn that her beauty was now surpassed. Young Snow White, having come of age, was now the fairest of them all. And she, and only she, could defeat Ravenna and return the kingdom to its prior prosperity.
Upon learning of this, Ravenna sends for Snow White. She will sap the young girl of her beauty, and remain forever young. But Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest, where no one is willing to go. Ravenna enlists the aid of the Huntsman, with promises of reuniting him with his one true love.
Okay, I’m going to cut this off right there. This is supposed to be the synopsis, not a novel. But this quite succinctly (okay, not so succinctly) sums up my biggest issue with ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’. There is already so much story to the fairy tale. It’s a brilliantly constructed story, and it does not require much, if any, elaboration. It’s why it’s a classic. But what ‘Snow White’ does is pile layer upon layer of backstory, character motivation, and extraneous characters that it becomes bogged down in its own storytelling. I’m going to highlight three in particular, and forgive me, but these are going to be spoilers in nature, so if you haven’t seen the film you might want to skip ahead in this review.
First and foremost, there are just too many characters in the film. But, to pick on one, the character of William is entirely superfluous. William (Sam Chaflin) was Snow White’s childhood friend, and after learning that Snow White is still alive (she’s been assumed dead since Ravenna seized control) he ventures on a quest to save her. Okay, fair enough, but the problem is The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) already fills that role. Scenes that should have been between Snow White and the Huntsman (see, it’s in the title!) are instead portioned off to William. This dramatically undercuts the development of the relationship of Snow and Huntsman. He should never have been in the film.
The problem of character is further accentuated by the overwritten back stories. The Huntsman suffers the most, so I will pick on him. He is so obviously overburdened with back story that wouldn’t be required if William wasn’t in the film that it becomes laughably absurd when Ravenna’s brother reveals the ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ style connection to Huntsman’s murdered wife. For clarification, The Huntsman returned from war a damaged man. He drank, got into trouble, and was all around a bit of a ne’er-do-well. But through the love of a good woman he became a better man. Unfortunately he returned home to a raped and murdered wife, and has since returned to his ne’er-do-well ways. But after meeting Snow White, he starts being the man he used to be. The purity of her goodness ennobled him.
This is, quite simply, too much. It’s only in the film because the William character confuses what should be a simple, straightforward love story between Snow White and the Huntsman. Instead of all this murdered wife stuff, which makes it impossible for these two to be together romantically, the Huntsmans back story should be limited to his post war ne’er-do-well behaviour, and his return to better man status through Snow’s infectious goodness. Then, when late in the film The Huntsman gives his death side speech and resurrecting kiss, Snow’s return from the grave is because of the purity of true love. It might sound cornball, but this is a fairy tale after all. Instead, this moment is undercut by the nature of the screenplay, and loses a lot of its punch.
Lastly, I will pick on… yes, you guessed it. The screenplay. It’s not enough for Snow White to be the fairest of them all. Now she must be a Christ like figure. Or in modern terms, she’s Neo from The Matrix. She’s “The One”, and her very life force emits rejuvenative powers. People feel better around her, ailments dissipate, the land restores and animals flock to her. It is, again, too much! Surely vanquishing the evil witch who oppresses the masses and returning the throne to the rightful heir, a woman of purity, kindness and beauty is enough for the story. This whole theme is a manufactured reach for the epic, and it just doesn’t work.It would be remiss of me to harp on about the screenplay without actually naming and shaming those responsible, so let’s all cast an accusatory glare at Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini.
Right, now you’re no doubt thinking that I didn’t like ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’. But the thing is, despite the aforementioned problems (of which there is one more), I really did enjoy the film. More than anything else, it looks absolutely stunning. The first feature film from Rupert Sanders, known to me only because he directed the Halo 3 commercial, the movie looks like Ridley Scott by way of Guillermo Del Toro. It’s a truly gorgeous looking film, with my personal highlight being the nightmarish visions of the Dark Forest. In fact, all the fantasy elements are spot on, and I would have loved to had the opportunity to further explore that part of the world. Overall, Sanders used his huge budget wisely and the result is a visual feast.
The subject of the films look leads me directly into the visualisation of the dwarves. Instead of taking the traditional approach, and casting, you know, actual dwarves, Sanders has taken the much more difficult route and used special effects to shrink a who’s who of British actors in the roles. Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, and Brian Gleeson make up the eight dwarves who befriend Snow White. It’s a little disconcerting to begin with, seeing these familiar faces towered over by their co-stars, but the effects are so seamless that you end up more or less accepting them quite quickly. Why it was entirely necessary to digitally shrink these actors, rather than cast real life dwarves, is another question. I don’t think it would have made a difference to the effectiveness of the film if they had cast dwarves, so it does seem like an excessive expense and unneeded hassle to do it this way. But in any case, the effects are so good that you don’t give it much thought during the film.
Besides the dwarves, the cast hits some highs and lows. Towering above everyone else is Charlize Theron’s impressively terrifying performance. Her Ravenna is a desperately spiteful, shallow and vacuous monster who conducts her evil from the cavernous opulence of the castles throne room. She cares about nothing but her continued reign of beauty, and cruelly sacrifices young girls, draining their life force, to sustain her looks. It’s a terrific performance, with the reach of her evil invading all corners of the kingdom. It’s all the more impressive considering Theron only really has two scenes outside of the castle walls, and one of those is her introduction.
By contrast though, Kristen Stewart is found wanting. Never the most sympathetic performer, she’s clearly unable to convey the natural sweetness and empathy that the role requires. It’s difficult to see why Snow White is such a figure of purity and brings such hope to the populace. Stewart may be well suited to the mopey teen who doesn’t feel that she’s special, who falls in love with a vampire and runs her fingers through her hair a lot, like in the ‘Twilight’ movies, but as the fairest of them all? No, unfortunately she’s quite dramatically miscast. Particularly if you’re going to cast the stunning Charlize Theron in the film. It distracted me slightly during the film by the clearly unbalanced beauty of the two actresses. I’m petty like that.
The two leading men are also at a contrast. Chris Hemsworth again establishes his leading man credentials, providing the film with a natural centre point. A lot of the second act is his, and he delivers a credible performance in an overwritten role. It’s a shame the character wasn’t allowed it’s natural arc, but Hemsworth makes the best of what he is given. On the other hand, Sam Chaflin is ineffectual as William. The (much) aforementioned screenplay is largely to blame, but Chaflin doesn’t find a way to overcome these shortcomings, and by the action packed finale he’s been sidelined to such an extent he could have been credited as an extra.
Despite this critical review, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ is a solid film. I’ve tended here to accentuate the failings of the film, but make no mistake, there is a lot to like. It’s this fact that leads me to focus on the negative. I believe there’s at least a three and a half chang film somewhere in here. At least, there was at some stage. The inclusion of too many characters, and the excessively unnecessary embellishment of the source material has led to the filmmakers over stuffing the turkey, so to speak. They’ve taken what should be a pretty straightforward film, cleverly revisioned, and over seasoned the chicken, over peppered the steak, over cheesed the pizza. No, scratch that. You can’t over cheese anything. Cheese is awesome.
‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ is better than a lot of summer films, and a lot better than I expected. But it was very close to being something pretty brilliant, and that is a real shame. I do recommend you see the film though, don’t get me wrong. I’m just being a grump, and having a bit of a whinge.