Snow White and the Huntsman is a beauteous, enchanting and thrilling fairy tale adaptation. Watching it, I was absorbed by its atmosphere and action; it reminded me of when I was a kid and all a good story needed was a hero (or in this case, a heroine); a villain; and a quest. These are the ingredients for most stories - modern and old - but the original Grimm Brothers fairy tales, including Snow White, helped pioneer the template and this latest interpretation proves a classic can still thrive when it’s done right.
Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman
By Matthew Huntley
June 12, 2012
The movie is traditional and straightforward in a lot of ways, as most fairy tales are, but its characters are more progressive. Snow White, in particular, is a born leader and not merely a damsel in need of rescue. In fact, there’s more to all the characters than we might have expected given the fairy tale archetypes. Director Rupert Sanders and writers Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini use the broad strokes of the original story to form their structure, but they re-envision it and the final product is crafty, exciting and, in some ways, unique.
If you’ve seen any other incarnation of Snow White (who hasn’t seen Disney’s version?), or read the original fairy tale, then you know it’s about a fair, kind and just girl in a faraway kingdom. Her name is Snow White, named by her beloved mother, Queen Eleanor (Liberty Ross), who saw how alluring the white snowfall was in the deepest of winters and sensed her child possessed the passion.
When she’s a little girl, Snow White’s mother passes away, and her grief-stricken father, King Magnus (Noah Huntley), heads out to do battle with a phantom army made of black glass. Following his victory, the king comes upon one of the army’s supposed prisoners, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and is taken aback by her beauty. The two are arranged to be married the next day, but on their wedding night, she murders him, and we soon learn of her grand and sinister plot to assume his throne and become the most powerful woman in all the land.
With the help of dark magic, Ravenna rules the now dark and dreary kingdom but is told by her portentous “mirror, mirror on the wall” that Snow White will eventually be her undoing unless she takes the young girl’s heart. Lucky for Snow White (Kristen Stewart), fate is on her side. Brave and resourceful, she escapes from the castle tower and hides out in the dark forest, which is where the movie really starts to comes alive. The forest contains a muddy, sinking ground; dark, leafless trees with branches that turn into to snakes; slimy, slithery animals; giant trolls; and a peculiar substance that causes your skin to melt. Combined with creepy, ominous noises, the world envelops us. It must have been a production and sound designer’s dreams come true.
When the Queen’s pale, white-haired brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), fails to capture the princess, she recruits a local huntsman (Chris Hemsworth of Thor) to bring her back, promising to resurrect his dead wife. Desperate, the Huntsman accepts the Queen’s terms, but he inevitably grows fond of Snow White and the two embark on a journey toward the land of Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and his son William (Sam Claflin), who was Snow White’s childhood friend. She believes she can form an army and take back her family’s rightful kingdom.
And it just wouldn’t be Snow White without the seven dwarves, who show up about halfway through and start cracking jokes and asking Snow White to dance. When I first saw them, I recognized the actors Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones and Eddie Marsan, among others. Then I thought, “These guys aren’t actually little people.” The filmmakers and special effects team have done a seamless job of using forced perspective and digital effects to make these large men appear as dwarves. I didn’t notice a single instance where a double was used or the CGI was obvious. I’m still not sure why actual little people weren’t cast, but even so, the effects were uncanny.
The film combines a childlike sensibility with a dark and rousing adventure story. It gives us lovely, magnetic scenes like Snow White entering the verdant forest of the fairies, where soft, cuddly creatures like rabbits and butterflies willfully bow down to her, followed by tough, brooding and often violent chase scenes and battle sequences. But the violence is effective and not too harsh. It helps make the movie unique because Snow White is depicted as a forceful heroine able to fend for herself, fight off men and balance strength and endurance with empathy and beauty.
You’d think the grandiose production values would overshadow the characters in a story like this, but the cast lends weight to their roles, especially Theron and Hemsworth. Each possesses a strong and natural screen presence, and not just because they’re good-looking, but because they’re commanding and convincing. Theron is mean, evil and wretched as Ravenna, a character that could have easily been played over-the-top, but Theron shows restraint and there are times when we sense her malevolent calculating. A particularly effective moment takes place when Finn witnesses her talking to the mirror on the wall and it’s just her in a room by herself, suggesting there’s something more to her disturbed psychosis. And Hemsworth, for playing such an archetypal role, gives the Huntsman dimension and poignancy. He’s not just some guy with muscles.
At the risk of sounding harsh, one of the movie’s handicaps is Kristen Stewart. Granted, she’s better than I thought she’d be, but I think she’s yet to prove herself a full-fledged actress. Something about her expressions, or lack thereof, and line delivery make her seem wooden and insincere. I have a feeling she was cast primarily because of her ties to the Twilight movies, and the studio knew her inclusion would sell more tickets. She’s serviceable, but I think the role could have been owned by a stronger actress.
Say what you will about Hollywood running out of original ideas, but if there’s one thing Snow White and the Huntsman proves it’s that modern storytellers can still render intelligent, visionary movies from antiquated material, even if it’s been interpreted several times before. Heck, just three months ago, another Snow White adaptation, Mirror Mirror, was released, but it had a goofy, slapstick quality to it. Snow White and the Huntsman is meant to be taken seriously and has been made with great craft and attention to detail. For these and other attributes, it’s solid entertainment we come to respect and admire.