Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

Arriving three months after Mirror Mirror, the other big studio Snow White film, Snow White and the Huntsman is drastically different in style and tone. Looking more like HBO's Game of Thrones, in comparison to Mirror's super bright, campy, family-friendly design, Huntsman is aimed at a slightly older demographic, one willing to take its fairy tales with a little more gravity. Yet despite individual pieces that are ultimately more successful, Huntsman isn't really an improvement over Mirror Mirror as it is, well, just different.

For the most part, the basic elements of the story are expected: a king makes a seriously bad choice in his second wife, who kills him and imprisons his daughter, only to determine that she needs to consume said daughter's heart to live forever. Thankfully, director Rupert Sanders and company help everything feel fresh with the rugged, lived-in medieval look. This is a lush world, one that feels more like it lives, breathes, and dies than the hyper-artifice of Tarsem Singh's film. And for a good half hour or so, everything comes together - despite fleeting blips - to create something rich, dark, and compelling.

Magnetic from her arrival on screen, Charlize Theron is wickedly entertaining as Ravenna, the evil queen holding Snow White (Kristen Stewart) as a prisoner, all while sucking the youth and beauty out of other captive maidens. Dressed in Colleen Atwood's sumptuous costumes, Theron embodies Ravenna with the icy heartlessness of a woman taught from birth that the key to a woman's success was her beauty, and nothing more. It's Ravenna's reign of terror that is the most enjoyable to watch, and the further the film gets from that, in the wildly uneven middle, the more it suffers. First-time director Sanders knows how to create some effective imagery and atmosphere, and when it all comes together, it can be quite compelling. Aside from Ravenna's scenes in the opening, the director also nails Snow White's nightmarish hallucinations as she stumbles through the Dark Forest during her escape from the Queen's forces. It's appropriately dark and unpleasant, and helps reinforce the idea of a more grown up world. Many fairy tales, were, after all, filled with extreme darkness, with everything from murder to suppressed sexual anxiety running amok, and Sanders' film reaches its high points when it taps into this. 

Unfortunately, the trifecta of writers don't keep up the momentum. Once Snow and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) escape the Forest together, the movie becomes simultaneously rushed and sluggish. There's an entire plot thread involving Price William (Sam Claflin) and his desire to find Snow White, not having seen her since they were separated during Ravenna's brutal take over of the kingdom. It's not terribly interesting, and it distracts from the relationship between Snow and the Huntsman, who comes across as much more engaging. It feels like the film wanted to build some sort of love triangle, but then got tired of it and simply gave up without seeing through on any of it (yup, even in the end). The film also rushes into its climax, complete with an uneven war speech with lots of obligatory SHOUTING, and then next thing we know, Snow is all ready to go into battle (apparently it just doesn't take that long to learn how to wield a full battle armor...which was just lying around in her size...).

Thankfully the finale redeems some of this, although it doesn't carry the intrigue of the opening act. The grittiness comes through in both the real, actual battles and in the fantastical elements. The darkness and menace are always present as well, even when the film stumbles in execution. Even the film's one moment where it could potentially go into an overload of fantasy schmaltz, set against a magical forest populated with sprites and other creatures, ends with a moment of violence.

Snow White and the Huntsman ends up being a mixed bag, but it deserves credit for when it works. Some films are complete disappointments, but Sanders' film does come together with strong results. Had the middle built on the momentum of the first act, instead of squandering it, this could have truly built into a stellar big budget fantasy. As it  is, though, it's a mixed bag with a wide range of highs and lows that keep it from being the majestic, gritty epic it very likely has the potential to be.

Grade: B-/C+


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