An Unexpected Pleasure: Snow White and the Huntsman

Well, once in a while, the trailer and even the reviews from my favorite critics let me down.

Thanks to my friend Danny Walter for encouraging me to go see a film that all of the marketing, trailers, and reviews had convinced me to avoid. …

I actually really liked most of Snow White and the Huntsman.

The first half hour had serious problems. As the wicked queen, Charlize Theron seemed determined to strip Al Pacino of his crown as the shouting champion of Hollywood. Her line readings were exactly the kind of overblown hysteria that you would affect if you were in a spoof of fantasy movies. If she didn’t look so fantastic in those costumes, it would have been a disaster. (I found it amusing to imagine that this was Theron’s abnormally youthful character from Arrested Development transported to another dimension where she is given supernatural powers and turned loose upon the kingdom.)

Several incidents had a sort of WTF arbitrariness to them especially the discovery of the White Horse. Good grief. Snow White goes on the run and is immediately blessed with Shadowfax so she can escape, and then just as quickly robbed of that same gift? Bizarre.

The way Snow White and the Huntsman are thrown together in the Dark Forest felt hastily arranged. But once they’re together, they’re agreeable company.

And then, at the very end of the movie, during the inevitable face-off between our hero and the wicked queen, the storytellers clearly don’t know what to do. The clash ends with the most unimaginative of maneuvers. I was really hoping for something that felt meaningful, surprising, clever. Until then several of the standard Snow White plot points had been given thoughtful new twists. The climax falls flat.

Nevertheless, there are many wonderful things in this film, especially when the dwarfs show up.

They show up much later in the film than I expected, but when they do they run away with the movie. They’re noble, funny, endearing, and they have real personalities. Such great casting: Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins, and Nick Frost are worth the ticket price, just the three of them. Ian McShane and Toby Jones make strong impressions, and Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson are unrecognizable but for their voices. I won’t be surprised if, when Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit arrives, I end up preferring this team of dwarfs (or dwarves, whichever you prefer) over those from the Lonely Mountain.

While the Dark Forest that Snow White must survive feels like a yard sale of familiar big-screen spooks and nastiness, the uncursed forest that she discovers later turns out to be one of the most beautifully realized wonderlands I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s more enchanting than the jungle in Avatar, more inspiring than the big-screen Narnia, even better at representing an uncorrupted world than the elf-country of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

Kristen Stewart, who has taken a lot of flack for her performance here, doesn’t deserve bad reviews. She’s supposed to look like a young woman who has suffered, who is taking on more than she is prepared to carry, who is lonely and a little bit lost. Stewart is just fine. She looks beautiful when she’s in an extravagant costume, but more importantly, she looks real. And that’s what this version of the story needs. The emphasis is on the beauty of her heart, not her glamour.

So it makes perfect sense, contrary to some critics’ complaints, that the wicked queen would be the film’s most arresting beauty visualy… because she’s obsessed with youth and cosmetics-commercial razzle-dazzle.

Chris Hemsworth makes a decent huntsman, although his somewhat Scottish accent comes and goes. (I caught one “Oh, fer-get it!” that was an obvious stumble.)

As fantasy film couples go, Stewart and Hemsworth are much better than Tom Cruise and Mia Sara in Legend, but nowhere near as inspiring as Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer in Ladyhawke.

Finally, the closing scene: It has one astonishingly coincidental similarity to the closing scene of The Hunger Games… not just for what happens, but for the presence of a certain actor in that scene. Unbelievable. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here. But if you’ve seen the closing moments of both films, think about it, and look at the last names of the actors involved.)

Anyway, I’m very glad I saw this on a big screen. Like Ridley Scott’s Legend – which is famously beautiful, and also famously flawed – Snow White and the Huntsman stands as one of the most glorious fantasy films I’ve ever seen *visually*. If the script had been strong beginning to end, it might have landed in my top 10 for the year.

I intend to write a more thorough review one of these days. There’s a great deal here worth writing about.

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