Guest Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman
Okay, I’m seriously ready for the month of June – and the movies that accompany it – to get under way.
May ended up being a dismal month for being a cinephile, with Marvel’s The Avengers proving itself not only a great movie, but a blue whale in a koi pond. Dark Shadows was a dud. Battleship was bull$#!*. The month so lacked anything good that the industry’s biggest successes were in the specialty markets, with geriatric coming-of-age comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom making larger critical and commercial splashes than their vastly more expensive cousins. The coming month offers a release schedule that looks to blow May right out of the water – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (based on the parody book by Seth Graeme-Smith), Brave (Pixar’s latest masterpiece) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott’s sorta Alien prequel), and those are just the top of the heap in a month that also features the Steve Carell comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, Cannes favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild, heavy metal musical Rock of Ages, and promising indie Safety Not Guaranteed.
This first weekend brings us Snow White and the Huntsman, the second 2012 adaptation of the fable penned by the Brothers Grimm. When rival studios Relativity Media and Universal Pictures announced last year that they both had a ‘Snow White’ movie in the works, much was made of the chess game that was each film’s release schedule. Relativity finally settled on a March 30’th opening for Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, well ahead of when Universal would be able to showcase their Snow White piece. However, after all that trouble it seemed Huntsman had nothing to really worry about; Mirror Mirror was little loved by anybody, and the light-hearted comedy came up lame both creatively and at the box office. I had a strong desire to wash that particular Julia Roberts-shaped stain from my soul, and the dark, gloomy look of Snow White and the Huntsman’s trailer made this latest fairy tale adaptation look like a Lord of the Rings-style take on the same story. I wasn’t quite sure it would be GOOD, but I was quite certain it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as Singh’s big-screen massacre.
Well, the good news is that Snow White and the Huntsman IS better than Mirror Mirror in just about every way. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this is merely faint praise. The problems start right from the beginning, as the film – like every Snow White tale before it – tells the origins of the beautiful Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and her wicked stepmother Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), as though we actually need to be reminded what we bought our tickets to. It’s difficult enough to believe that there are people who don’t already know the legend of Snow White without tackling the notion that they would even entertain seeing this film without that prior knowledge. I would be more forgiving if the story as a whole were all that different from the one with which we are already familiar, but all the same stuff is still here: vain evil stepmother, prophesying mirror, poisoned apple, Dwarves… Despite the frantic claims by filmmakers that we are in for something new and exciting, and a gloomy atmosphere that helps define the film as at least moderately, Snow White and the Huntsman feels like far too much of the same, a missed opportunity considering how badly Mirror Mirror faltered.
The biggest issue dogging Huntsman was the choice of director. With a career consisting entirely of commercials for Travelers Insurance and Monster, Rupert Sanders should have been nowhere near this project. I’m sure he’s a perfectly talented filmmaker, but just take a look at the man’s IMDB page; he has absolutely no experience directing major motion pictures, or even short ones. He has no control over the film’s story: every single idea that crossed the minds of his screenwriters was included, no matter how small, illogical or poorly explained. The script itself is a mishmash of ideas added solely because it was thought that they would “look cool” and glaring plot and narrative holes that are never even remotely addressed. Every time you think the script has finally balanced, the bad just keeps coming, from the questionable opening monologue of Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman to the total lack of clarity as to Queen Ravenna’s powers to the already-tired love triangle involving Snow White, the Huntsman, and the Charming Prince (Sam Claflin).
That last plot thread has been appearing everywhere lately and will continue to do so thanks to teen-pleasers Twilight and The Hunger Games. I patiently waited for the giant battle sequence at the movie’s end just to satiate my lust for both hacking and slashing, only to be ultimately disappointed in that as well. Sanders does have an eye for the visual, and the special effects are very strong (if not quite Tolkienesque), but this still isn’t the guy producers should have handed $170 million to if they wanted something of high value. It’s not quite Jonah Hex bad, but at least Jimmy Hayward only had $47 million to waste on a lost cause.
The director can’t even make use of a potentially strong cast, though putting Kristen Stewart in the same league as the Oscar-winning Theron and even upstart Hemsworth is a bit of a stretch. The proud owner of exactly one facial expression, this young actress continues to keep me waiting for SOMETHING that proves she actually has talent worth bragging about. Sure, she has an intense look that works great on the big screen, but those are dime a dozen in modern Hollywood, and not the secret to a long, successful career. Theron, on the other hand, has riches to spare. Possessing the looks, maturity and acting talent to play the evil queen who literally sucks the beauty out of her victims, she is nevertheless underutilized in what essentially amounts to an extended cameo. Her motivations are only slightly explored; even a brief hint of a tragic past doesn’t make her character any more sympathetic – when the film deigns to use her at all, that is, which it ceases to do effectively after the first half hour. Hemsworth and Claflin are both solid performers who are unfortunately stuck in their scripted roles, too similar to those in any other romance story to stand out effectively. Still, they do a decent job for the (lack of) quality material they are given, rising above even the limits of mediocrity imposed by the script.
I was slightly happier with the use of the Dwarves in the story, especially since Sanders (in a rare moment of competence) chose to cast normal-sized actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Toby Jones and CGI them onto much smaller bodies, much like Peter Jackson did with John Rhys-Davies in Lord of the Rings. As was Gimli, the Dwarves are sometimes (too often) treated as comic relief; though not nearly to the ludicrous degree they were in Mirror Mirror. You could argue that the characters themselves are ciphers, and could have easily been replaced by any number of normal-sized stand-ins, but I’ll credit the cast for making their roles likable despite their seemingly unnecessary presence.
I didn’t HATE this movie, but there certainly wasn’t all that much for me to LIKE. The sad thing is that I can see the exact moments where Snow White and the Huntsman torpedoes its own potential, running far too long and struggling to pack as much Snow White mythos as it can into a two hour film. That in itself was unnecessary; there didn’t need to be a mirror, there didn’t need to be Dwarves, and the heroine didn’t need to be named Snow White. Theron certainly doesn’t need to chant “Mirror Mirror, on the wall…” in nearly all her scenes, which feels completely out of place in the fantasy/medieval environment Sanders has built. The filmmakers claim that “this is no fairy tale”, but that is a lie; the story is almost a carbon copy of the classic story, and it is not even that unique to begin with. This is Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker also playing Princess Leia and Han Solo doubling as Chewie. In fact, this is every good vs. evil story you’ve seen on the big screen, just happening to focus on vanity in general. Because it’s running unopposed, there will be nothing to stop Snow White and the Huntsman from succeeding as a business move, justifying every wrong choice Universal Pictures and Sanders have made in creating this film. As a motion picture, as art, however, it represents everything that is wrong with the movie industry today; I can only hope that the rest of June proves more worthy than it did in its first weekend.
John C Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for his latest film reviews.