Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Disney aside, fairy tales are supposed to be dark, scary stories that impart a moral to children and adults, generally by scaring the heck out of them. Kids get tortured, imprisoned and eaten, benign animals turn violent, grandparents turn into monsters, blood, madness and mayhem rules!  Sheesh. But sweet fairy tales where the evil is mild and there’s a unrelieved overtone of sweetness and light? What’s the point?

That’s always why the recent “nice” version of the Snow White tale, Mirror, Mirror, was so boring. Director Tarsem Singh scrubbed the story clean a la Disney and turned it into a romantic comedy with no tension left. Just bad acting and some tired visual effects. Yawn.

But Snow White is a pretty epic storyline to work with. Think about it: The story includes a king who is seduced and murdered by his pretty new wife, a princess who has to fight her evil step-mom after years of exile in the woods, and a jealous woman whois so superficial that she tries to murder her step-daughter after learning that the girl’s destined to grow up and be the fairest in the kingdom.

I had high hopes. In fact, the previews for Snow White and the Huntsman certainly make it look unrelievedly dark. In fact, I expected a horror film with grim themes and ominous imagery. And to some extent, that’s what the film delivers. There’s a darkness, an aggressively evil overtone that really gives the film an energy that’s quite appropriate to this dramatic story.

But the film has two fundamental flaws: comic relief in the form of the seven cliché dwarves (who owe more to The Hobbit than Walt Disney, thankfully) woefully misplaced in the movie and offering snappy lines when fear and anxiety were more appropriate, and some of the worst acting performances I’ve seen in lead roles in a while.

Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t Kristen Stewart’s turn as Snow White that I disliked, but Charlize Theron as the evil step-mom and Queen Ravenna. She played her usual flat “cool girl” performance throughout most of the film — the same one you’ll see when Prometheus is released next week — in a role that really required someone who would scare the crap out of us and come across as the worst thing to ever hit the kingdom, a permanent threat to peace and tranquility and a violent monster of a woman just biding her time, waiting to suck the life energy out of everyone youthful and ultimately destroy poor Snow.

To round out the cast of characters, the Huntsman is played by the likable Chris Hemsworth, though after his turn as Thor in the blockbuster The Avengers, when he wielded his axe I expected it to turn into a hammer. Snow’s childhood sweetheart William is played rather tediously by Sam Claflin. What would she have ever seen in this wallflower of a royal during medieval times populated by tough, rugged masculine archetypes?

Charlize Theron at Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman

The tension isn’t between potential suitors, however, but between Ravenna, the über-evil queen and step-mom, and Snow, the beautiful ingenue who has to find her own inner strength to defeat the woman who has murdered her beloved father and stolen the kingdom. 

There’s much to enjoy while watching the film even with its flaws, however, including some amazing costumes for Queen Ravenna that transform before our eyes from one form to another, and beautiful sets that feel a lot more like a cold medieval castle than is usually portrayed on screen. It makes the castle seem freezing and uninviting, and the muddy villages with their downtrodden peasants? Makes me glad to live in the 21st Century.

I enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman, I just would love to see the script in the hands of a more sophisticated director who didn’t feel the need to relieve the tension in the film with daft dwarves and lame comic lines, and who could cast  strong, powerful actresses in the lead roles. With those two changes, this could have been an amazing film. It’s certainly visually compelling. As it is, however, it’s yet another in the long parade of visual experiences that are completely forgettable the moment you walk out the theater. Too bad.

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