04 June 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Summer movies, like boxes of Crackerjacks (does anyone still eat those? I never see them for sale any more), come packed with surprises. And, like Crackerjacks toys, often they are lame surprises. Let-downs. Occasionally—and it usually happens only once per summer—the toy you dig out of the same-old same-old carmel and peanut glop is a Hot Wheels car with flame details and killer sci-fi spoilers that somebody in the Crackerjack plant accidentally dropped into the box while leaving hastily for a smoke break.

Snow White and the Huntsmen is one of those positive summer surprises. I hope it isn’t the last “Hot Wheels” shock of the season, but in the month-long lull that followed the boffo fun of The Avengers, I’ll take it and cling to it.

A high-fantasy film like Snow White and the Huntsman (the ampersand only appears on publicity material) should not be a hard-sell to my usual readers. But the marketing and trailers pushed hard to get the Twilight fan-base to show up, so fantasy lovers pegged it early on as “not for us.” But it is! The Twilight viewers will love it, but they’ll like it for the same reasons other viewers will: it’s a broad-appealing, well-constructed, marvelous-looking, fun fantasy romp.

And, if it were not for a major casting blunder, I could easily see myself adding Snow White and the Hunter to my Blu-ray shelf the week it comes out. I still will purchase it, but a few months after its street-date when I can get a bargain on it used.

The unpleasant truth is the piece of miscasting is monumental: the first of the two title characters, the figure who gives her name to the legend. My dear Snow White. Played in a perpetual coma by Kristen Stewart.

Ah, K-Stew, K-Stew … what are we to do with you? Even under excellent directors like Greg Mottola and Bill Condon, its seems nothing can unfreeze Stewart from her personal iceberg. I’ve searched for an appropriate way to describe Stewart’s performances, and I think I finally hit on it: she’s a girl in the middle of the “you are getting very sleeeeeeepy” part of a hypnosis act. Her Snow White deep in the suspended animation from biting the legendary poison apple is no different than her Snow White rousing people to war, or waking up nature with her radiant powers (snicker), or swinging around a sword while dressed in plate armor. She might as well eat poison apples the whole film, it would make no difference in her acting.
She looks like this the whole movie, folks.
This is not a fatal flaw, but it does significant damage to the movie. Snow White is the core of the story: we must believe this young woman’s existence is an antidote to the venom of her evil stepmother, Queen Ravenna; that she can provide the salve to the wounded heart of the huntsman; and that she can lead an army of rebels with only a single speech. K-Stew blows every one of these scenes. Her rabble-rousing speech is a joke, and I felt so sorry for all the other actors and extras on set who had to pretend this uninteresting woman just shouting her lines with no actual passion is a reason to go slaughter the bad guys. Snow White’s encounter with the White Hart is a near-magical sequence, realized with painterly execution—except, K-Stew’s Snow White is supposed to be causing it and therefore I can’t fully fall into the intended spell. And poor Chris Hemsworth tries so very hard to connect with her, but he only manages the chemistry in a scene where she’s temporarily dead.

Now allow me to cheer you up and provide four reasons why, this huge problem aside, Snow White and the Huntsman is worth your time as a fantasy fan.

1. The Rest of the Cast is Gangbusters

… and they’re having a great time while managing to work with the movie’s tone.

This is really Charlize Theron’s film—even though she has less screen time than either Hemsworth or Stewart—and Theron seems aware of her centrality. This isn’t the type of performance that wins Oscars (she has one already), but it is the type that makes a summer movie much more fun. Theron has perfected her “Maleficent Lessons,” making evil very dark and very sexy at the same time. The evil queen Ravenna (why that city’s name? not criticism, just curious) is a blast as a dark sorceress, exploding with arrogance and fits of madness, appearing unstoppable until the climax. And you gotta love watching Charlize Theron throwing Kristen Stewart around like she was sock monkey.

The script makes a brief attempt to give Ravenna a tragic backstory to explain her history of stabbing the kings she marries, but it is unnecessary and I’m glad the movie never dwells on it past a short flashback. Ravenna as pure evil for its own sake is acceptable. We need more one-dimensional villains around. (Never thought I’d encourage one-dimensional characters, but for some movie types, bulky psychological folders add nothing. Evil Queen! Yeah! EVIL QUEEN!)
I have this things about evil queens, so . . . wow.
Playing the second half of the title is Chris “Damn-I’m-Having-a-Great-Year” Hemsworth. He’s in Thor-mode, hurling axes and hurting things, sporting a rustic English accent that isn’t necessarily “polished” but definitely “works” as far as the tone goes. He carries the bitterness of the story: he lost his wife, and agrees to hunt down Snow White for Ravenna because of a promise that she will resurrect his dead love. (Come on, Chris, you seriously believed a her? She’s evil! EEE-VIL!) But Hemsworth pulls off the personal tragedy without falling into a Bog of Mopey. Even in a deep funk, Hemsworth comes across very energetic. Yeah, he struggles across from Kristen “I Sank the Titantic” Stewart, but thank Odin the man is putting in the effort. His few scenes with Theron are prickly goodness and the dramatic high points of the early running time.

(A few days after seeing the film, I experienced a revelation that should have come to me during the major Ravenna-Huntsman scene: Charlize Theron should play Amora the Enchantress in the upcoming Thor 2! At this point, Marvel hasn’t revealed all the villains for the movie, but the Enchantress is my number one pick for Thor’s big adversary. And now I know exactly which actress I want to slip on the green Asgardian outfit.)

Oh, the seven dwarves … yes, they’re here, even though the trailers kept them well disguised. The script wisely prevents them from turning into the center ring of the story and instead fits them neatly into Snow White and her brawny savior fleeing through the woods. And what a great line-up of actors who’ve undergone the digital shrinking: Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost. The dwarves manage to be funny (right at the point when the film needs a humor boost), surly, and touching. Bob Hoskins is the actor who hits the most passionate notes among this ensemble, but McShane ends up as the hardened butt-kicker with the most appeal. The dwarves are all great and maybe the biggest surprise of the film.

Props also to Sam Spruell, who plays Ravenna’s brother and stooge, Finn. Spruell is stuck with the silly Prince Valiant haircut, but overcomes it to be a weasly counterpart to Theron’s pomposity and good action foil for Hemsworth.
“Ravenna, you’re adopted!”
2. Excellent Fantasy Production Design

The art direction and production design stomps in the dust two of last year’s sloppy epic fantasies, Conan the Thing I’d Like to Forget Happened and Immortals. Both of those films sport slathered-on exaggerated fantasy appearances, but forgot to have them fit together or make the least bit of sense aside from “hey, this might look cool.” Snow White and the Huntsman simply looks right. It has a Charles Perrault/Brothers Grimm sheen with dashes of the bizarre Lord Dunsany and the deeper European mythic. This is a setting where the divisions between the evil-stocked castle of the queen, the dangers of the Dark Forest, and the light of faery are thin enough that they can comfortably co-exist. This extends to the costumes and visual effects as well, and James Newton Howard’s score is orchestrally organic. The only piece of design that feels too modern-blockbuster is the Mirror, which has transformed into the T-1000, tweaking a solid and simple concept too hard for the sake of extra CGI.

3. The Source Material Gets its Dark Due

This is where director Rupert Sanders, a commercial director on his first feature, deserves the biggest credit. I’m sick of whimsical and ironic takes on fairy-tales, such as this year’s earlier “Snow White” film, Mirror Mirror. Snow White and the Huntsman has definitely Tolkiened-up its action and downplayed some of the lighter elements of the legend, but the folktale the Brothers Grimm recorded and which Disney immortalized for the screen is still present and recognizable, with all its sinister, disturbing themes.

4. The Film Kills Stuff Real Good with Sharp Things

The battle scenes and action beats work. It’s a tiny triumph today to praise an action scene simply because I can tell who is killing whom. And when “whom” is sometimes crazy iron-shard monsters, the triumph gets a bit larger. Hemsworth wields a mean axe, and for a PG-13 movie, there’s some deliciously deep impacts with the sharp-edged things. Good times, and it gave me my epic fantasy fix. This connects with the sober approach to the legend, because Snow White and the Huntsman is fine with allowing the blood flow.

But….

Kristen Stewart. So for all the praise I’ve given Snow White and the Huntsman, I do have to dock it for that. Keep this in mind when looking at my rating below.

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: Actually, this Friday. Prometheus. Maybe you’ve heard of it.