Snow White is the current princess du jour, enjoying quite the resurgence in popularity with no less than three wildly varied incarnations within the last year -- as a central character in the television show Once Upon a Time and in the family-friendly flick Mirror Mirror, the latter released just a scant three months ago. Snow White & the Huntsman is the latest big-screen incarnation, and from the previews it promised to be a dark and twisty take on the familiar story, with an epic feel more akin to Lord of the Rings than the classic Disney animated film. It succeeds...to a point. To be clear, I really liked this film, but that does not mean I was immune to its many (MANY) issues. So let's discuss. :) This is apt to be LONG...
The film opens with the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) as storyteller, sharing Snow White's story and how her kingdom fell under the power of a charismatic evil queen. (I COULD LISTEN TO CHRIS HEMSWORTH ALL DAY.) The opening scene promises a tale surprisingly in-step with the story's Brothers Grimm roots -- a beautiful queen (Liberty Ross), longing for a child, comes upon a brilliant red rose blooming in defiance of winter's cold. Pricking her finger on a thorn, three drops of blood fall to the snow, a stark visual contrast that prompts her to wish for a child with skin as white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair as black as a raven's wing -- and this is key -- a spirit akin to the rose's defiance and strength in blooming in the dead of winter.
In time a daughter is born to the queen and her husband, King Magnus (Noah Huntley -- the older Peter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!), and christened Snow White (Raffey Cassidy), as physically she embodies the beauty her mother wished for prior to her birth. But more than outward beauty, Snow's mother never fails to remind her daughter that true beauty comes from within, and that is her greatest strength. But Snow's happy childhood is doomed to fail, no more playing weird games with apples with William (Xavier Atkins), her best friend and son of Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan -- Wallander, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, ShakespeaRe-Told), her father's closest advisor. Snow's mother dies and her father goes COMPLETELY off the rails. Conveniently the king's resulting death wish coincides with an invasion of dark knights who happen to be MADE OF GLASS, and let me tell you watching them shatter is absolutely mesmerizing. Following his disturbing easy victory, Magnus comes upon a prison wagon holding a beautiful woman named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and is instantly smitten. Her golden hair and clothes are the complete opposite of the dark knights, so OF COURSE SHE'S A VICTIM, right?! (Let's not think about why she would be the only human in a sea of glass warriors, whatevs...) Magnus carries her off to the castle and makes plans to marry her THE NEXT DAY, because WHY WAIT, that would make sense. Silly man.
The wedding night does not go well for Magnus, as to be expected. Ravenna is no victim, she's the sorceress who used the dark knights to gain entry to the castle -- and does she ever have issues with men and power. This dichotomy between Snow and Ravenna is one of the film's most interesting points -- Snow, raised with the understanding that true beauty and strength comes from purity of heart, while Ravenna (as it is revealed later in flashback) bears the mark of her mother's conviction that beauty is her only power, a weapon to be used to avenge her mother's death and to crush her enemies. But such a curse is not without a failsafe -- by Ravenna's fairest (innocent) blood the spell was cast, but by fairest blood it can be undone.
On that fateful wedding night, Ravenna siezes control of the kingdom and imprisons Snow, the girl's only allies -- William and his father -- barely escaping with their lives. Now I'm not entirely sure how much time is supposed to have passed (if it's mentioned in the film I can't recall) -- in the novelization it's ten years, but on the film's Wikipedia page it's fifteen -- but either way, Snow is now of age and is played by Kristen Stewart, who is wisely given very little dialogue. And here's where things start to get interesting...
Charlize Theron as Ravenna OWNS this film. Her evil queen is by far the scariest, most intense, mesmerizing incarnation of the legendary villain to every grace the screen (or my imagination for that matter). Her icy blonde beauty is the perfect foil for Snow's darker looks, and the intensity she brings to bear on this role is just incredible -- screaming, bodily thrashing around, she throws herself into this role heart and soul. That said, I wish -- oh, how I wish -- the film gave Ravenna's character more context. It isn't revealed until over halfway through the picture the source of Ravenna's power, and that is only in a hazy flashback sequence. I wanted to see what brought Ravenna to Snow's kingdom, what set her on the course to become a power-hungry queen. And perhaps most ofa ll -- who was responsible for the attack on her family that led to her mother's "gift" of the spell that would ultimately become her daughter's destruction? The idea, the set-up, of physical beauty as a weapon versus beauty and strength of spirit is nicely meted out throughout the film, but I was left wanting -- there's a lot of promise in the "twists" this incarnation of the familiar story brings to life, but all too often the development of potentially fascinating plot points are left under-developed.
So Ravenna's power is waning because Snow has finally "come of age." No longer content with consuming the youth of captured young women (I thought this was just a brilliant twist on the queen's desire to remain "the fairest one of all"), her mirror -- played by Christopher Obi (seriously, the molten mirror? AMAZING) -- advises her to consume the heart of Snow, her primary rival, and in doing so promises her immortality. Ravenna sends her brother Finn (Simon Spruell), a completely disgusting creep, to bring Snow's heart to her. (Was it just me, or did Ravenna and Finn's relationship have some disturbingly incestuous overtones? ICK.) When Finn enters her cell (and is COMPLETELY GROSS), Snow siezes her chance and slashes him with a nail, escaping her cell and barely escaping the castle with her life.
This is where Snow kind of goes off the rails a bit -- she shows little ill effects from her imprisonment. She has a surprising amount of stamina and apparently no negative psychological impact from being locked up by a psycho since she was a small child. Thanks to a conveniently available horse she makes it to the Dark Forest, a.k.a. the point of no return. Now the forest in the Disney film terrified me as a child, and I loved how the filmmakers took that concept and ran with it -- the menacing trees with their groping branches, the idea of hallucinogenic pollen increasing the terrifying visions, the concept of the forest feeding on one's fear -- all of that brilliantly played out on-screen. Indeed it is a mark of one of the film's greatest assests -- it's world-building and set design. This is a movie you can lose yourself in quite literally, and I was happy to do so for two hours. :)
With her prey loose in the forest, Ravenna requires a hunter with nothing to lose -- and enter the Huntsman, the other best part of this film when it comes to acting. I could write PAGES on Hemsworth's performance. It's riddled with angst (love me some angst!) and self-loathing -- the Huntsman is a man in need of redemption, in need of a cause, and as such he was responsible for the greatest part of my emotional investment in this film (really, this just should've been a movie about Ravenna and the Huntsman...who needs Snow? LOL). The Huntsman is all for delivering Snow to Ravenna until he meets Snow in the Dark Forest and is -- what? impressed by her desperation to live? Unaware of the value of his charge's identity, the Huntsman takes Snow to a nearby village, claiming all he wants is a monetary reward...but oh Chris, we know your type...you are not as far gone as you'd like everyone to think. *wink*
Now, prior to this film's release, thanks to the trailers and reading various summaries online, I fully expected a lot of screentime to be given to a teacher/student relationship between Snow and the Huntsman -- I was under the impression she would transform into a "warrior queen" under his tutelage. Well unless I missed something, the Huntsman teaches Snow one (1) defensive move, and by the end of the movie she is wearing armor and leading men into battle. *rollseyes* The script instead spends far too much time (especially once Snow meets the dwarves) developing this rather silly idea that she is some sort of healing, mystical savior -- there is NO context for this savior complex, it is just a given thanks to dwarf Muir's (Bob Hoskins) apparent power as a seer. I'm sorry but Kristen Stewart has the charisma of a two-by-four, I cannot buy her as a savior or warrior queen at all. She works fairly well as Snow White when she doesn't say anything, but even then that gets a bit nuts because she's mum when you expect dialogue (i.e. the concluding scene) and ridiculous when she talks (ie. the "rally the troops" speech).
So, let's try to wrap this up. INTERESTING CAST MEMBERS -- the dwarves are brought to life by a score of familiar faces. There's the aforementioned Hoskins, joined by Ian McShane (Beith), Ray Winstone (Gort), Eddie Marsan (Duir), and Toby Jones (Coll), to name a few. I confess that after a single viewing I was left rather lukewarm by the dwarves' appearance -- I enjoyed seeing the familiar faces, but was annoyed by their use as a vehicle for driving home the idea of Snow-as-savior. I wish they'd (like all the characters in this film) had been a bit better realized script-wise. I was thrilled to see Rachael Stirling as Anna, one of the women Snow and the Huntsman encounter in the village at the edge of the forest. Anna is the one who reveals Snow's true identity to the Huntsman, and she brings this tragic sort of gravitas to the role - it was espeically heart-breaking to listen to her explain how the women of her village voluntarily scar themselves in order to escape Ravenna's search for "consumable" beauty and youth. I've been impressed by Stirling's appearances in The Young Victoria, Inspector Lewis, and Miss Marple, and look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.
The adult William is played by Sam Clafin, of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides fame, doing a lovely Robin Hood/Hawkeye impression with his bow & arrows (seriously, what IS it about archers on film lately? LOVE IT). I loved William's loyalty to Snow White, the way he goes undercover with Finn's men in order to find her, but oh how I wish he had a more charismatic leading lady to work with. OH WELL. *sigh* I was fascinated by the script's twist on the famous apple scene, and how it involved one of Snow's oldest friends -- seeing William offer Snow the apple, then realize Ravenna adopted his form, and watching her transform -- that was really well-done. Also of interest is the famous kiss, and that it is not William, whom we expect to wake Snow, that delivers it...
It is the Huntsman's kiss that wakes Snow White from the poison apple-induced slumber. From talking with a few friends I gather many viewers would prefer Snow to end up with William -- but the Huntsman's kiss certainly points in another direction (will be VERY interesting to see how these relationships play out in the sequel). Leaving aside the fact for the moment that I think both the Huntsman and William deserve other leading ladies -- working with what we're given I love the idea of Snow White and the Huntsman as a twist on the traditional princess ending up with a prince fairy tale trope. Hemsworth's delivery of the Huntsman's apology for not protecting Snow is just heart-rending, saturated in regret and "what-ifs." In principle, if not in execution, I loved the concept of Snow White making the Huntsman a better man, of two individuals from such disparate backgrounds complementing each other. I want my revised and refreshed fairy tales to have twists like this -- and having Hemsworth fill half of that equation, well that goes a long way in my book. :)
Lest you think I didn't like this film, rest assured that I did -- but there was so much unrealized potential that I couldn't help but over-analyze. *wink* (I'm actually thinking about seeing it in theaters again.) I'm not holding my breath, but if the planned sequel materializes, with more attention to story and character development, married with this film's stunning visuals and costume design (seriously, Colleen Atwood had BETTER get an Oscar nomination for her amazing work), there's a lot of potential here. I love the Huntsman character and the suggestion that he is perhaps the princess's best match -- and with the ambiguity of this film's ending, I'm VERY curious to see how this love triangle of sorts is further addressed in any sequel(s).
All things told, I'm pleased with Rupert Sanders' directorial debut. He's crafted a stunning world here, one that holds great promise for future projects. Composer James Newton Howard also delivers a score with some memorable cues -- it isn't my favorite work by the prolific composer, but it gets the job done. And if a stronger script is delivered for the sequel, I may be able to further overcome my antipathy towards Stewart as a leading lady. *wink* In any case, Hemsworth and Clafin win the day. :)
Let's end this with just ONE MORE Huntsman picture, because I really feel you can never have too many: