Monday, June 4, 2012

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall, Who is the Scariest of Them All? - "Snow White and the Huntsman" Review

Over the past several years cinemas have been flooded with modern adaptations of older stories and this summer is no different.  Film after film, weekend after weekend, these contemporary remakes are seeking to find their own unique take on a classic story and hoping that audiences find something new in the material.  It's a hard thing to reinvent a fairytale as iconic as Snow White, particularly because it has been retold so many times over and over.  With Snow White and the Huntsman, has first-time director Rupert Sanders taken a bite out of a fresh or poisoned apple?

Sanders's take on the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale immediately sets itself apart from any adaptation of the material ever seen.  If there was ever a time to say, "This isn't your daddy's ______," this is that time.  It's as if Snow White and the Huntsman is the result of a group of people gathering to discuss how they might update the story of Snow White, so as to draw in modern crowds and the ever-coveted market of teenage boys, and what they decided on was that they would create the most nightmare-inducing version of the tale imaginable.
Snow White and the Huntsman's imagery is unforgettable at every moment, in both its horror and beauty; in one moment ravens splatter against stone and in the next a great elk with majestic wooden antlers commands a forest clearing.  Many of these powerful images are directly inspired, if not stolen, from the best films of the genre.  If one is going to steal, why not steal from the absolute best?  Sanders is able to conjure the sweeping landscapes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, the creature design of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, the dreamy magic of Hayao Miyasaki's Princess Mononoke, and he's covered it all up with the mud of Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky.

While Snow White and the Huntsman plays out exactly as one might assume, its the small changes in the story and tone that make all the difference.  The biggest story change surrounds that of the evil Queen named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who, in this adaptation, must kill Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in order to prevent the loss of her magical, anti-aging, powers.  So when Snow White escapes from her prison, deep within Ravenna's castle dungeon, it is up to the drunken and recently widowed huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve her heart.
The journey that Snow White and the huntsman embark on, after joining forces, is full of wonderful set pieces as they square off against trolls, a forest that feeds off their fears, and eventually the famous dwarfs.  Each of these moments is rousing and exciting but after awhile the sheer number of new things to be introduced does leave the middle of Snow White and the Huntsman feeling a bit overstuffed.  
This has the unintended effect of weakening the motivations of the minor characters in the film.  Even Ravenna is given an unconvincing backstory to flesh out her motivations and desires, rendering her as just another overly angry villain.  With a few less ideas, each of these additions to Snow White's story could have felt interesting and purposeful.  A number of elements in Snow White and the Huntsman, such as the dwarfs, feel as if they only belong in the movie because of their origins in the source material.

While Snow White and the Huntsman's story might not fit together in the most comfortable and airtight of ways, it makes up for it by being bold and daring in every other way.  The most obvious and successful of these ways is in the performance of the always beautiful and statuesque Charlize Theron as the evil Ravenna.  Theron doesn't just chew on the scenery, she devours it whole.  Her performance walks that fine line between absurdist humor and frightening malice with such control and precision that it results in something frighteningly insane.  Ravenna's story might not be the most interesting ever put on screen, but her stunning beauty does a wonderful job of offsetting her inherent insanity so as to create an ever-shifting and dynamic relationship with the audience.
In the same token, the budding relationship between Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth is never fully realized or explored, which allows it to quietly bubble below the surface.  This works well with the more restrained performances of Stewart and Hemsworth.  Stewart does a decent job as Snow White, which is commendable considering the impossible job that she is given in outshining the beauty of Charlize Theron.  Although a fine actress who knows how to work with her environment to create a believable and nuanced performance, Stewart's style of acting seems strangely modern for the medieval setting of Snow White and the Huntsman.  How could her modern beauty ever stand a chance against the timeless, confident beauty of Theron?
While not all of the elements that make up most of Snow White and the Huntsman work perfectly together, the film is able to come together for a rousing finale that will have audiences questioning everything they ever knew about Snow White.  Snow White and the Huntsman is overstuffed with beautiful imagery, special effects, and interesting concepts that it is hard to fault it for trying.  So while Snow White and the Huntsman might not be the fairest of them all it's far from a poisoned apple.  It's more like an apple that has been genetically altered to have too many healthy ingredients that the overall taste is diluted.

For a full discussion of Snow White and the Huntsman (with SPOILERS) listen to THE FILM GRIND!

2.5 / 4 Reels


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