Despite its complete tonal difference from that other Snow white movie earlier this year, Snow white and The Huntsman is a visual feast and an unexpectedly complex variation on the traditional fairy tale.
A brief prologue shows how the noble King Magnus (Noah Huntley) was tricked into marrying the beautiful, evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who kills him while in the process of consummating the marriage. She then takes over and locks the young Snow White (Raffey Cassidy) in the castle’s north tower – where she stays for many years.
There comes a time when Queen Ravenna’s magic mirror (which spawns an oracle that resembles a melting Oscar®, or Gold from DC’s Metal Men) tells her that she is no longer the fairest in the land, but that by killing the new titleholder and eating her heart, she can not only regain her lost status, but also live forever
Before this, Ravenna kept her beauty by taking milk baths and sucking the life force out of young virgins like the unfortunate Greta (Lily Cole, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Indeed, it’s the wizened Greta who warns the grown Snow (Kristen Stewart) that she must flee after Snow escapes her cell by using a nail to thwart the lecherous Finn (Sam Spruill), Ravenna’s brother, who seems to want to bring her to the Queen only after he’s played with her a bit.
In a lovely touch, Snow is alerted to the nail outside her cell window by a couple of birds – and it is they who show her the avenue of her escape through a sewer grate into the tunnels below. When she enters the Dark Forest – the one place where Ravenna’s powers don’t work – the Queen orders a drunken widower to find and retrieve her.
The Huntsman (Chris Hems worth, Thor) finds her but, decides to aid her instead (he probably believes snow when she tells him the Queen will kill them both). His aid, in turn, leads to visit to a village on a lake that borders the forest and an eventual meeting with eight (yes, eight) dwarves – one of whom, Muir (Bob Hoskins) has the insight to know that she’s The One who will save the kingdom.
Of course, that depends entirely on her staying alive after the plucky company, which includes Snow’s childhood friend William (Sam Catlin), escapes from Finn’s men and enters an enchanted valley where the last and best of fairyland creatures thrive in a verdant green environment (even the turtles and snakes have glorious green moss on their backs, mushrooms have winking eyes and actual fairies lead them to a tremendous white stag that seems to be the living avatar of the place.
From there though, it seems all downhill, as Finn and his men find them – shooting the stag with arrows and chasing the company who fight back with great vigor – a tricky proposition when Ravenna uses a truly sly gambit to get the traditional poisoned apple into play, seemingly shooting down any opposition to her continuing reign.
Snow White is a gorgeous film to look at. Coleen Atwood’s costume are as striking as any we’ve seen this year (including in that other Snow White film), and the sets are works of eye-popping art.
While Theron is having fun chewing the scenery, Stewart is taking Snow from lost, alone and scared, to getting her stuff together and getting that stuff done. Despite the half-hearted stab at a romantic trio, the romance is pretty chaste and more a factor of surrounding circumstance than wanting to go the Twilight route. Still, some viewers may start a Team Huntsman vs. Team William meme – showing that they really just don’t get it.
Sanders does take his time getting things moving, the prologue does have a couple battles in it, but the story setup is more important, so the action is pretty truncated. Once into the body of the story, though, he doesn’t speed things up too much. As a result, we get to know interesting bits about the lesser characters – including that one of the dwarves really would have killed Snow back before he knew who she was. There’s an intriguing backstory for Ravenna that shows she wasn’t always the melodramatic Queen we now see. Once she was a victim (the brief scene suggests rape and pillaging), but the means of keeping her ‘the fairest in all the land’ has required her to take a different path.
Snow White and the Huntsman looks amazing throughout.
The castle reminded of the British Gormenghast mini-series in all its Gothic splendor; the enchanted valley and its inhabitants were as whimsical and joyous as you can imagine, and the cinematography, by Greig Fraser) is turns spectacularly beautiful and equally spectacularly creepy and scary. The film’s CG work is good, but maybe a little shaky in places – none of which have anything to do with Ravenna (she gets superb effects when required).
For me the big surprise is that Stewart is actually allowed to act – to show a bit of range! Like happiness – she even smiles a few times over the course of the film. Her feistiness is impressive, but Theron’s Ravenna owns every scene she’s in.
Most of the supporting players go above and beyond the call of duty, especially the actors played the dwarves (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Breedan Gleeson, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Toby Jones among them). Kudos to the effects people who seem to have worked some real magic here – probably through a combination of CG, motion capture and practical (dwarf body doubles) – to make these non-Dwarf actors look perfectly natural.
The film ends on what could be considered a cliffhanger if you want to look at it that way – but it could also be that a ‘happily ever after’ might not be generated in the standard manner…
Snow White and The Huntsman has its flaws (It’s a shade too long; the storytelling is such that the director clearly expects the audience to fill in some gaps on their own, and it sometimes seems as though there’s not enough comedy to leaven the film. Overall, though, it is one of the better movies this season and definitely worth seeing a theater (where you will save a few bucks because it’s not in 3D!).
Final Grade: B+
Photos by Alex Bailey/Courtesy of Universal Pictures