As I may have mentioned a few times on this blog, I've been regularly watching "Grimm" on NBC. I do this partly because I like the show's paranormal spin on fractured fairy tales, and partly because supporting the show is almost an obligation to any proud native Portlander. But at the same time, I also enjoy watching "Grimm's" rival show, "Once Upon a Time" at ABC. For those who don't watch either show, "Grimm" is a procedural, with each self-contained episode containing modernized elements of a different classic story. "Once Upon a Time," on the other hand, is much more interested in telling an overarching story. Though it does have self-contained episodes devoted to individual fairy tales and their characters, all of the series' episodes (or those in the first season, at least) are responsible in some way for advancing a single fairy tale. And strangely enough, it's one that "Grimm" has yet to mine for its own purposes. I'm of course referring to Snow White.
"Once Upon a Time" focuses on two reinterpretations of the Snow White characters. In one version, the characters have been sent into our world, going about their lives without any knowledge of their past selves. The other version focuses on their past selves, which is the half that's more relevant to this article. In these flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest, the cast and crew of "OUaT" have done a stellar job of reinterpreting this classic fairy tale. Characters from other stories cross over, but almost always in a way that enhances the story. All of the most iconic and memorable parts of the story are there, but presented in a way that makes more narrative sense. Best of all, Snow White, Prince Charming, and the Evil Queen are all consistently played with exceptional skill by Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, and Lana Parrilla, respectively.
The point being that even if you don't count Mirror Mirror (and given how that movie underperformed critically and financially, why would you?) there's already a perfectly good Snow White retelling that's available right now. More than that, it's an ongoing production. Season 1 only finished airing last month and Season 2 is currently in production for a premiere this September. And it's not like this is an obscure thing either: The Season 1 finale had an estimated 9.66 million viewers.
For any attempt at retelling Snow White, this is a kind of competition that should not be ignored. In some way or another, it has to either set itself apart from the competition, or improve upon it. Given that, how does Snow White & the Huntsman hold up?
Well, let's get the obvious out of the way: This movie is beautiful. It's the kind of gorgeous that slaps you across the face. I'll grant that the editing leaves a bit to be desired, but the camerawork is solid, the costume design is marvelous, the set design is superb, the makeup looks very good, and the special effects are masterful across the board.
Far more importantly, the special effects and production design go toward creating a genuinely fantastic wonderland. The Dark Forest in this movie is honestly terrifying. The fairies' meadow feels incredibly magical. The film features trolls, dwarves, and other mystical creatures, all of whom are brought to the screen with dazzling results. Even in the film's more mundane settings -- run-down villages, for example -- the attention to detail is staggering. And let's not forget the battle scenes, all of which were spectacularly executed. The scale of this movie is truly epic, and that counts for a lot.
It's patently obvious that a great deal of ambition and creativity went into this movie. However -- and I almost can't believe I'm typing this -- the filmmakers may have been a little too ambitious and creative for their own good. For example, at roughly the 50-minute mark, we meet a tribe of women who've chosen to mutilate their own faces. The Evil Queen, you see, captures beautiful young women so she can take their beauty and youth for herself. Thusly, the women of their tribe choose to make themselves ugly so the Queen has no reason to go after them.
On the one hand, this is a very smart idea. It's a logical extension of the Queen's overwhelming vanity, and it's a very clever way to show what effect the Queen's global takeover is having on everyone. On the other hand, what does this have to do with the original fairy tale, or with any of the old fairy tales? Moreover, why does the movie spend so long with a tribe of women who have no effect on the plot, especially since we haven't even met the dwarves yet?
That's right, folks: We don't meet the dwarves until an hour into this two-hour movie. It's a damn shame that the dwarves are so under-utilized, because they were cast by the likes of Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan, among others. These are all amazing actors, and it's clear that they're all putting in a ton of effort, which makes it a damn shame that they had so little screen time to work with.
Moving on to the principal cast, the first thing that anyone will notice about this film is that the Huntsman has been given a serious promotion. Because he's now a title character, it should come as no surprise that he has a considerable amount of screen time. In point of fact, he may well have more screen time than anyone else in the film. Basically, the Huntsman (who's never given a name, by the way) has been turned into a "Han Solo" type. He's a drunkard, he gets into bar fights, he has a serious problem with authority, and he has a love/hate relationship with the female lead.
Alas, this character was written in a woefully cliched manner. The man has a dead wife, a history as a soldier in a bloody war, and he has at least two "Refusal of the Call" scenes that hold absolutely no suspense. On the positive side, Chris Hemsworth actually has enough swagger to make the character work. After all, his most recognizable role to date is another hot-headed tough guy, so it's not like this was a difficult leap.
One of my fears going in was that Huntsman's rise in prominence would come at the detriment of Prince Charming. This was compounded by the fact that the Prince in this movie -- name of William -- was cast by Sam Claflin, who was last seen playing Will Turner's replacement in a critically-panned role for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. So imagine my surprise to find that this Prince Charming is no slouch. He's handsome, he's brave, he has a childhood history with Snow White, and he's a master archer to boot. This is a very strong character, and paradoxically, the film suffers for it.
Here, the movie provides two potential love interests for Snow White. The Prince is the more interesting character and he has far more chemistry with Snow. By comparison, Huntsman's romance with Snow is somehow extremely rushed, which is rather strange, considering how much screen time they have together. I won't even get started on how the "poisoned apple" crisis plays out in this movie, much as I wish I could. And in the end, the matter of who Snow chooses goes completely unresolved. Bullshit.
I could understand -- nay, appreciate -- a movie that doesn't end with a kiss, but come on. This is Snow White. This is a fairy tale. In fact, it's arguably the definitive fairy tale. To tell this story without a "happily ever after" is just wrong. Moreover, it's a tell-tale sign that the filmmakers were trying to have it both ways. They were trying to make the Huntsman and the Prince into equally prominent and likable characters, each of whom gets his own due reward. Not gonna happen, movie. Not like this.
This brings me to Snow White. She's played by Kristin Stewart in this version, and I admit I was rather shocked to realize that in spite of how prominent she's become over the past few years, I had never actually seen a Kristin Stewart performance before. I still haven't seen Adventureland, I missed out on Welcome to the Rileys, I passed on The Runaways, and I've gone very far out of my way to avoid anything remotely related to Twilight. I'm actually rather glad that I walked into this movie without any baggage or preconceptions about her acting work. On the other hand, it also leaves me unsure of who to blame for this portrayal of the character.
Honest to God, the young version of Snow White is played by Raffey Cassidy, and she leaves more of an impact in the first fifteen minutes than Stewart does in the entire remainder of the film. It's tempting to blame that on Stewart herself -- and I'm sure she's part of the problem, make no mistake -- but I'm equally tempted to blame the writers. Throughout the entire film, we're told how Snow is so beautiful, so pure of heart, and so blessed by fate that she's destined to finally bring down the Evil Queen. But Snow herself is never given any chance to prove herself worthy of this reputation. There's nothing in her dialogue or in her actions to convince us that she's a messiah until the climax. And at that point, it's far too late. Even when Snow manages to tame a troll halfway through the movie, her ability to do this has been so poorly established that the moment falls entirely flat.
Okay, I'll grant that Snow does nurse an ailing bird back to health, and those birds do come back to help Snow when she really needs it. First of all, that might sound like a totally hokey story point, but damned if that doesn't sound like something the Brothers Grimm wrote into at least a dozen stories. Secondly, Snow took care of the ailing bird back when she was being played by Cassidy. What does Stewart do in this vein? Not a thing.
Basically, Snow is only important to the plot because all of the other characters think she is. In what may be the ultimate violation of "show, don't tell," we need to be told how Snow is going to be the savior, because Snow herself doesn't show any heroic tendencies until just before the climax, a dollar late and a dollar short. I could certainly understand how the Queen would be jealous of her beauty, and I could even understand her appeal as a love interest by the shallow standards of Hollywood blockbusters. But could she lead an army of men into battle? Could she inspire total strangers to die for her cause? Is she really capable of taking on the role given to her by fate? HA! Sorry, movie, but no. I'm just not seeing it.
Though to be fair, Snow White is not only supposed to be the fairest of them all, but also the most innocent and pure of heart. How could anyone make such a character interesting to watch? I'd reply by directing you to Ginnifer Goodwin's portrayal in the aforementioned "Once Upon a Time."
All that's left is to talk about the Evil Queen Ravenna, who's easily the strongest character in this film. I say that because she's written and portrayed as over-the-top evil, which you'd think might be a drawback. But come on. This is the Evil Queen. She isn't just any one-dimensional villain, she is THE one-dimensional villain. The mother -- quite literally -- of all one-dimensional villains.
You cannot underplay this character, and bless Charlize Theron for embracing that whole-heartedly. She swings for the cheap seats with this performance, chewing all the scenery in sight to deliver a character we'd love to hate. She's vain to a genocidal degree, she'll kill anyone who disobeys or obstructs her, she's got all manner of horrifying dark powers, and yet she still thinks of herself as a benevolent tyrant. I should also add that the costume design does the character all kinds of favors, and the sublime special effects go a long way toward selling the Queen's witchcraft. Not only was the magic mirror presented in a very novel way, but the Queen's reliance on it is echoed in the dark glass that her soldiers are made out of. In my opinion, that was a brilliant touch.
This character and her portrayal are pitch-perfect in every way... except for when the script fails her. I'll show you what I mean.
Early in the movie, we see beggars scramble for some white substance (milk, I assume) spouting out of gargoyles in a palace tower. To hear the Queen talk about it from that same tower high above, it sounds like she's giving them some kind of charity. She then proceeds to bathe in a pool of that same white substance, in a scene that you probably saw during one of the trailers. What's going on here? Why is this happening? What is the white substance and why is it so highly prized? None of this is ever explained. In fact, the scene has no relevance to the overall plot and it's never mentioned again.
Then there's the matter of why the Queen doesn't kill Snow White. She marries Snow's father, kills him off, takes over the castle, and then locks Snow away in the castle's tallest tower for reasons entirely unknown. Yes, we are eventually given a reason for why Snow has to keep on living, but the Queen doesn't know that at the time. So basically, Snow is kept alive because the movie would be over if she was killed. This doesn't stop with the Queen, either. The Queen has a brother in this movie (Finn, played by Sam Spruell), whose idiocy is a crucial reason why two or three scenes don't end the film immediately.
And while I'm talking about weak links in the cast, I'd like to talk about Lily Cole (not to be confused with Lily Collins, who played Snow in Mirror Mirror). She's a noteworthy model who's also proven herself to be a very capable actress in a handful of films. Why do I mention her? Well, she appears in this movie as Greta, a character whose screen time and plot relevance amount to little more than a cameo. This is not a good use of a beautiful woman with genuine acting talent. Why on earth did they hire a decent actress for such a thankless role when any dime-a-dozen pretty face would've done just as well? Where the hell is Alice Eve when you need her?!
All told, there's a lot to like about Snow White & the Huntsman. Not only does Charlize Theron knock her role out of the park, but the film is visually magnificent. A tremendous degree of talent and creativity went into this movie, and a ton of great ideas are on display. Unfortunately, the filmmakers proved woefully inept at juggling and focusing these ideas to any effective result. This proves harmful to the dwarves, who don't get nearly enough screen time to justify their wonderful cast or their iconic place in the Snow White story. It's Snow White who ends up suffering the most, as she's never given any opportunity to earn her reputation as the land's savior. I'm tempted to think that if this film had been a half-hour longer, it would have been a much better film.
At best, I can recommend this film as a rental. A Blu-Ray rental, on the biggest screen you've got.