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Movie review: 'Snow White and the Huntsman': Beautiful though slightly uneven

June 3, 2012 9:56am
From the silent era to Walt Disney’s seminal animated version to the misfire that was “Mirror, Mirror”, the story of Snow White is one well-known to movie-going audiences.

With the abundance of adaptations out there, there was a fair degree of concern – especially coming so soon after the aforementioned painful Julia Roberts starrer – that “Snow White and the Huntsman” would be another lifeless retread of a well-worn tale. Would this be a shameless cash-in on "The Avengers" star Chris Hemsworth’s newfound fame? Would Kristen Stewart reveal a facial expression other than, “vaguely interested”? And, most importantly, could anyone ever be made to believe a magic mirror would choose Stewart’s looks over those of Charlize Theron?

Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth star as Snow White and the Huntsman.

Happily, despite the last two questions being answered in the negative, “Snow White and the Huntsman” emerges as a slightly uneven – yet oftentimes beautiful – retelling of the classic story, thanks to interesting variations on the material and some truly extraordinary visuals. Of particular note is Charlize Theron, who gives a top shelf performance, perfectly nailing the murderous vanity and growing desperation of her character.

The film begins with the evil Queen Ravenna’s (Charlize Theron) rise to power following the untimely death of her husband, the good King Magnus. Despite the valiant efforts of one of the King’s faithful knights, Duke Hammond, Ravenna’s dark sorcery and the assistance of her sadistic brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), enable her to claim the throne as her own.

The only potential thorn in her side is the continued existence of the king’s daughter, Snow White, whom the Queen keeps locked up in the palace dungeon, alive and well, for reasons that are never made entirely clear.

We soon learn that the Queen’s beauty regimen, aside from classically-decadent milk baths, requires her to literally drain the life force out of the kingdom’s most beautiful virgins, leaving them old and withered while she goes on looking, well, like Charlize Theron. Meanwhile, neglected, the kingdom falls into poverty and disrepair.

Charlize Theron's Ravenna is an Evil Queen to die for.

The Magic Mirror here is brilliantly presented as an ethereal being of molten metal, ever-assuring the Queen of her status as fairest in the land. Fifteen years pass, and the Queen is shocked when the Mirror informs her that she must consume her stepdaughter’s heart to gain immortality. Suddenly, keeping the legitimate heir to the throne imprisoned all these years seems like a lucky mistake.

Snow White does manage to escape her imprisonment, and the titular Huntsman, Eric (played by Thor’s Chris Hemsworth), is dispatched to bring her back. Naturally, he is captivated (and bribed) by Snow White to guide her to Duke Hammond’s castle in the hopes of overthrowing Ravenna’s tyranny.

Along the way, they meet Hammond’s son, Prince William (Sam Claflin), who proves to be no slouch with a bow, and a band of eight (yes, eight) dwarves, led by Beith (a digitally-diminutive Ian McShane). Sadly, the characterization of the dwarfs is woefully short-changed, leading to nary a reaction from the audience when their number is cut down to the traditional seven. Aside from Gus (Brian Gleeson) and McShane’s Beith, we don’t even know their names.

Thor and the eight dwarves

Where the film succeeds spectacularly is in establishing the kingdom as a living, breathing fairy tale world, where pixies and bridge trolls share the land with famed British actors (including Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Toby Jones) as dwarfs. The Dark Forest where Snow White first encounters Eric is everything a nightmare should be, where creatures lurking in the shadows of long-dead trees could kill you as quickly as the hallucinogenic spores that fill the air. Conversely, the Enchanted Forest where the dwarfs make their home is an undeniably beautiful creation, filled with enough creative flora and fauna to put a dozen fantasy movies to shame.

The third act sets up the now-prerequisite epic medieval showdown, similar to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, complete with the inexplicable transformation of the heroine into Braveheart in the last 30 minutes. Before this point, the story was doing well enough with clever variations on the traditional characters (such as having the dwarfs be miners-turned-freedom fighters) and concepts that resorting to a massive army battle seems perplexing as it is superfluous.

The film succeeds spectacularly in establishing the kingdom as a living breathing fairy tale world where pixies and bridge trolls roam the land.

Admittedly, the original story isn’t known for its deep characters, but “Snow White and the Huntsman” falls prey to the trend of modern movies to underestimate the audience by giving most of the leads overly-detailed back stories that add little to the plot. The thing is, with established tales like this, we already know how we’re supposed to feel about these characters; we don’t need everyone’s hopes, fears, dreams and motivations explained to us. Just as we don’t need to know how, when or where Don Corleone bought that cat he’s stroking in “The Godfather”, we don’t need to know why the EVIL Queen is EVIL.

Even if one accepts that the filmmakers just had to introduce a back story, it is disappointing if they lack the conviction to see it through. A perfect example is Eric, whose initial motivation is the resurrection of his wife. Just as soon as we are convinced her death drove him to become an unkempt, drunken, drifter, she is quickly forgotten the second Eric learns Snow White’s true identity. This newfound affection leads to what is perhaps the film’s biggest, albeit unsurprising, given the title, deviation from the source material. Granted, the Huntsman is a title character, but to have him rob Prince William of his only actual function in the story is pushing things too far in favor of the man who is Thor.

If you’re looking for a commentary on society’s obsession with beauty, this isn’t it, but it’s still a fun way to spend a couple of hours at the movies. "Snow White and the Huntsman" may not be the fairest of them all, but it certainly provides enough interesting tweaks to a beloved story and visual bang for the buck that you can see why someone went to the effort. While one wishes that maybe a little more of that went into the story, that’s another tale for another time. —KG, GMA News

Photos courtesy of Solar Entertainment Corp-United International Pictures
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