Saturday, December 7, 2013

Snow White and the Huntsman (Roth/Universal, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Snow White and the Huntsman was advertised as a new “spin” on the old Grimm fairy tale, and it became better known for the antics of the participants off-screen than anything on-screen — particularly the affair star Kristen Stewart had with director Rupert Stevens, which broke up her real-life relationship with her Twilight series co-star Robert Pattinson. It’s basically a retelling that emphasizes the Grim(m)ness of the original that Walt Disney’s classic version, typically for Disney, played down. It hits the familiar story points — the beautiful but wicked queen, here named Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron (it was almost inevitable after her Oscar-winning role as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster that someone would cast her as a real monster!), who has been given eternal life by a spell involving blood (so Kristen Stewart still couldn’t get away from vampire movies!) only it can be undone by Snow White’s blood unless the queen protects herself by taking Snow White’s still-beating heart from her body; the poisonous apple with which Snow White is almost killed; the flight through the forest in which Snow White escapes the Queen’s minions; the huntsman who’s supposed to kill her but instead spares her life; and the seven dwarfs — played in this version not by actual little people but by normal-sized actors digitally “shrunk” to look like dwarves. The script was concocted by three writers working in relays — Evan Daugherty came up with the “original” story and the first draft of the script, only to be replaced by John Lee Hancock (presumably no relation) and then he was replaced by Hossein Amini — and even by fairy-tale standards it makes almost no sense.

The Queen, whose name “Ravenna” is risible (it’s the name of a real-life city in Italy and one contributor suggested the name Ravenna is unlikely to be considered the epitome of evil by Italians, including ones who’ve either lived or traveled to the real Ravenna), has an equally wicked brother, Finn (a movie-stealing performance by Sam Spruell), who commands her armies. That’s “armies,” as in two of them: a real one of normal human soldiers and a “phantom army” of people whose bodies turn into shrapnel when they’re attacked. The gimmick is that Snow White’s father, the king of the mythical (and unnamed) country where all this takes place, falls into hopeless grief after the death of Snow White’s mom — until Ravenna first softens him up with an attack by her “phantom army” and then moves in for the kill, disguising herself as a homeless urchin, seducing him into marrying her, then killing him (with a dagger to the heart as they’re having sex!) and using her magic powers, supplied by the blood spell given her by her own mother, to maintain her position and suppress all opposition … though that hasn’t stopped Snow White’s childhood friend William (Sam Claflin) and his father, Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan), from establishing a sort of government-in-exile on the other side of the sinister Dark Forest, in which not only do trees come to life à la The Wizard of Oz (a movie that, ironically, was itself inspired and strongly influenced by the 1937 Disney version of Snow White!) but their branches turn into snake, bodies turn into fetid black pools (and vice versa) and Snow White couldn’t possibly survive — especially when the magic horse on which she makes her escape out of the Queen’s castle (where she’s been imprisoned for most of her childhood until she grows up and her heart thereby becomes efficacious for the sinister purpose to which the Queen wants to put it) sinks into quicksand — except for the intervention of the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, still an attractive man but too grungily costumed to be the dreamboat hunk he is in the Thor movies!).

The Huntsman, as you might have guessed from the title, takes a much more active role in the plot — we don’t meet the dwarves until the film is already two-thirds over — though there doesn’t seem to be much of a romantic or sexual interest between him and Snow White, and her relationship with William is also so sexless that for the first half of the movie I thought they were brother and sister. (Once I realized they weren’t, I thought they were going to pair her off with him at the end since he’s also of noble birth and the Grimm tales were nothing if not very class-conscious.) The biggest issue with Snow White and the Huntsman is the gap between Rupert Stevens’ audacious visual imagination — the Dark Forest really seems to come to life on screen (though some of the digital process work is pretty obvious) and the film is drenched in darkness and edited so much for shock value it almost qualifies as a horror movie — and the silliness of the script; as I’ve pointed out in these pages, fantasy actually requires more careful plotting and attention to consistency than any other genre. The writing relay team obviously went for scenes they thought would be “effective” and piled impossibility on top of impossibility until they ended up with a story in which, precisely because anything could happen, it was difficult to build up much sympathy with the characters — though if nothing else, director Stevens did emphasize their vulnerability, the way the Queen’s supernatural powers seemed to be able to track them wherever they go (of course we have something like that in real life in the U.S. today; it’s called the NSA!) and send Finn’s minions after that for the kinds of vividly staged, computer-generated action that virtually all major-studio movies today rely on for most of their entertainment value.

Aside from Charlize Theron and Sam Spruell, the hapless actors in this film seem to be along for the ride, with Kristen Stewart really at sea in a role that doesn’t give her the opportunities to portray internal conflict the Twilight movies (or her best film, Speak — in which she plays a troubled high-school student rendered virtually catatonic by PTSD after she’s raped by the Big Man on Campus) did — and James Newton Howard’s music score, vividly romantic in the best Erich Wolfgang Korngold manner for the scenes in and around the Queen’s castle, turns twee when it reaches the Dark Forest and especially the fairy realm on the other side of it (where the distinction between animal and plant life has become so blurred the fairies appear to be the world’s first genetic engineers), starting to rely on Celtic folk music (can we please have about a 10-year moratorium on fantasy film scores that draw from Celtic folk music? It’s great fun to listen and/or dance to but it has no dramatic weight whatsoever!) and ending in a clunky rock song by Florence and the Machine (a band I ordinarily like, but not here). Even the magic mirror becomes a cross between a crash cymbal and the Rank trademark gong, and instead of simply talking to the Queen the mirror emits a James Cameron-style liquid-mercury creature that gives the Queen its messages. “Who’s that — Arnold Schwarzenegger?” Charles joked the first time we saw this — and I joked back, “In this version, the mirror is Gay.”