Saturday, June 2, 2012

Snow White & the Huntsman

All the billboards and trailers for Snow White & the Huntsman proudly extol "from the producer of Alice in Wonderland," and that billion dollar earning film may be reason there's been so many reworkings of the classic Grimm fairy tales on display lately.  This is but the second Snow White take to enter cinemas this year, after Tarsem's comic retelling Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts crashed with a thud earlier this spring.  First-time feature director Rupert Sanders enters the mix with a darker, gothic telling of the Snow White tale that is visually plush, immaculately designed, but unfortunately resembles nothing close to a beating heart.  That's key, since the story is primed on such a vessel to keep evil at bay.  What's left to embrace is a go-for-broke visual design that takes the place of less sturdy structural storytelling.  Baroque, beautiful, even if often ill-fitting and unevenly patched together, there's an allure and grandeur (not to mention a cinematic softness) for sets seemingly built from the ground up.

The problem with Snow White & the Huntsman is two-fold.  First off, for a summer-time fantasy diversion, it takes itself far too seriously-- rigorously so in fact-- as if no one had any primary knowledge of fairy tale itself.  The second is a trickier one; one that it feels a victim of focus-group speak.  A weary blockbuster in waiting, yearning for a four-quadrant audience, that diminishes the appeal it might have been had it simply been its own thing-- a darker chapter in the Snow White canon.  The lengthy prologue tells us the earlier beginnings of Snow White, one who had "skin white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair black as night."  She's a beaut who lost her mother early and whose noble father was taken by a vain beauty, who in this version is named Ravenna (Charlize Theron.)  Theron is easily the best part of Snow White & the Huntsman; beautiful, yet vulnerable that her vanity might be stricken from her at any time.  She camps, and vamps, and makes full gestures that imply a greater deal of fun in store than the rest of the film can firmly deliver.

As Snow White grows up, locked inside her tower, she ages into Kristen Stewart, a shy, awkward waif.  Once she steals her freedom, Snow ends up in the Dark Woods, a chilly and illusive place where all the branches and nature springs to life as a coming of the most fearful of things-- the trees attack, the branches spawn into snakes-- it's a shatteringly evocative piece of art direction.  Queen Ravenna needs that bloody heart to keep her beauty thriving and she hires a huntsman (played by Thor's Chris Hemsworth) to hunt her down.  One of the niftier character decisions on the part of screenwriter Evan Dougherty (with an assist from John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini) was the reworking of Prince Charming into a drunken, Viking badass, a twist of sorts that brings out the best in Thor (I mean Hemsworth.)  The trouble is that while the story can never quite get a heads-up on the design.  The Dark Woods is a magnificently scary set piece, as is the movie's version of Eden, an idyllic Sanctuary where nature thrives, and sprightly faeries roam free.  Stewart herself acquits herself decently, even with an awkward British accent.

Snow White & the Huntsman devolves into a derivation of countless other films including The Lord of the Rings (the dwarfs strangely recall the behaviors of the hobbits, in body and spirit, while being digitally performed by actors by Ray Winstone and Ian McShane), Twlight (there's a-for-no-reason love triangle set up for Snow's affection), Gladiator and, of course Alice in Wonderland.  For some reason, the filmmakers felt the need to model Snow White in to some sort of Joan of Arc-type figure for the films climax; a strange and uneven attempt at putting a feminist spin on the fairy tale perhaps.  Another sequence, for some reason, I suppose, other than to show-off visual effects splendor seems to pay homage to last year's foreign art-house horror film TrollHunter.  That's the marketing angle of Snow White & the Huntsman that leaves the overly-long film a bit empty.

Like the Queen herself, the beauty of Snow White & Huntsman is sadly but skin deep.  C+

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