Today’s cinema adventure: Snow White and the Huntsman, a visually arresting 2012 feature that reinvents the classic fairy tale as a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with a message of female empowerment. In this version of the familiar story, the Queen is in fact a powerful sorceress who preserves her youth and beauty by draining the energy of young women, and the princess, foretold to be her undoing, is her prisoner; when Snow White escapes, the Queen sends a drunken wastrel to recapture her, but he instead becomes her protector and mentor, helping her to find the heroic force she needs to fulfill her destiny. The story is filled with great ideas, grafting elements of a medieval Arthurian-style quest saga into the Grimm Brothers’ original tale (with a dash of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), shedding insight on the origin and cause of the Queen’s wickedness and turning Snow White from a passive victim who must be validated and saved by a man (or seven) into a self-determining warrior princess who has the power to not only solve her own problems, but step into the traditionally male role of leader and bring the entire kingdom into harmony. Aiding considerably in the realization of these thematic twists is a stunning visual style that draws cinematic influence from Kurosawa and John Boorman’s Excalibur, coupled with a highly imaginative production design (under the supervision of Dominic Watkins) incorporating visual elements from the courtly romantic paintings of such artists as John Waterhouse and overflowing with the creative use of bird imagery. elemental contrasts, and the mystification of nature; of particular note are the costumes created by Colleen Atwood, especially for the Queen, and the magical CG artistry that brings life to the various fantastical settings and creatures- including the dwarfs, who are recognizable, full-scale actors rendered onto the necessarily diminutive bodies, a process that yields remarkable results but which also drew heavy protest and criticism for denying work to actual little people.
It would be nice to say that all this impressive conceptual and technical artistry was the basis for a great final product; but Snow White and the Huntsman, though passable enough as a lightweight summer diversion, fails to generate the kind of excitement and stimulation promised by its ambitious conceit. Director Rupert Sanders does a superb job of combining his various inspirations into a visual style (with the help of cinematographer Greig Frasier), but it seems hollow, lacking in the resonance and meaning required to elevate it beyond the level of a good imitation. The screenplay (by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini) fails to fully explore the possibilities suggested by the ingenious mash-up of sources at the base of their story, instead relying on familiar clichés and giving lip-service to the mythological principles inherent in the material, referencing the symbolic touchstones with all the conviction of marking off items on a checklist; the end result feels like a concept without a real direction, a meandering trip through a hodgepodge of mixed-up fantasy formulas that only pulls itself together into a resolution when it has run out of set-pieces. Likewise disappointing is the musical score by James Newton Howard, serviceable and predictable, providing the standard symphonic accompaniment heard in uncountable fantasy-adventure epics instead of taking advantage of the possibility to try something unorthodox. The acting isn’t horrible, though accents slip and mumbling abounds, but it isn’t really great, either: Charlize Theron, once again cast as a frosty bitch, manages to make us see the underlying pain of the Wicked Queen (which feels as perfunctory and inadequate as the rest of the unrealized story elements), but in the end she delivers a scenery-chewing performance that is, after all, just as over-the-top as we expect it to be; Kristen Stewart succeeds with the sweetness and vulnerability of Snow White, but somehow lacks the kind of strength to make a convincing transition into a force of destiny; Chris Hemsworth, as the roguish bad-boy who serves as secondary hero, comes off the worst, delivering a stilted, lumpish performance as a character that should provide the heart of the film. The rest of the cast all serve their purpose without surprise, providing us with the comfort of familiar stock characters instead of taking advantage of the chance to turn them inside out- a whole slew of missed opportunities in a film already over-filled with them.
That pretty much sums up the problems with Snow White and the Huntsman: despite offering a fresh perspective on its material, it’s a film which squanders its potential, offering new ideas and suggesting thought-provoking implications but delivering, in the end, just the same old Lord of the Rings-flavored conventions that make it so easy to dismiss the fantasy genre as fluff. Don’t get me wrong: I love Lord of the Rings; it’s an incredible piece of work that elevates fantasy to the level of deep, archetypal myth- but it’s already been done, and personally, the only other movie I want to see that feels just like it is the long-awaited version of The Hobbit which finds its way into theatres later this year. With Snow White and the Huntsman, I wanted something crisp and delicious, the exciting taste of a new hybrid flavor; but all this movie provides is yet another poisoned apple.