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Entries in Snow White and The Huntsman [2012] (1)

Saturday
Jun022012

Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

She Doesn't Look a Thing Like Jesus

In film criticism, context is everything. The "accuracy" of a reviewer's opinion has nothing to do with objective reality and everything to do with each reader's reaction. The planet teems with idiots who think Citizen Kane is a bad movie; these people have reserved seating in Hell, right next to anyone who's ever preached the Gospel According to Bridesmaids.

See? You may be a fan of Citizen Kane and hate Bridesmaids. Your thinking could also be the other way around, or fall exactly in line with what I wrote. That's the beauty of subjectivity; in a perfect world, people would be weighed down with giant bags of salt--one grain free with every opinion thrust upon them.

I bring this up as armor to help defend against another opinion I'm about to offer, an opinion that serves as both a preamble to and explanation for my assertion that Snow White and The Huntsman is one of the best movies of the year.

Here goes:

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not very good. The movies look great, feature wonderful technical achievements, and are packed with solid performances--none of which amount to an engaging story; certainly not one that takes over eleven hours to tell.* It took me and my wife nearly a full day of stopping and starting Fellowship to make it through without getting distracted or falling asleep. When The Two Towers came out, I convinced her and our roommate at the time that it would be worth catching in the theatre--based solely on Internet claims that the twelve people who couldn't stand Part One were sure to be bowled over by the sequel. To this day, I have scorch marks on either side of my head from the death glares my viewing companions shot at me during that tedious, disappointing two-and-a-half hours.

I don't like fantasy films in general, but I go to every one that I can in the hopes of catching a bit of the spark that makes the genre so popular. When I saw the trailer for Snow White, I was taken with the visuals and the idea of Charlize Theron as a quasi-British Evil Queen. But all my hopes were dashed when Kristen Stewart showed up, followed by Chris Hemsworth. Stewart's respiratory-disease style of acting has irked me since I survived the first Twilight movie, and Hemsworth has yet to match his emotional intensity in the first ten minutes of the Star Trek remake; it's a bad sign when Thor is consistently upstaged by his hammer.

So there I was, screwed, skulking into Snow White as I do with all movies I could care less about seeing: tired, but hopeful for the future.

This may be one of the most impressive directorial debuts of all time. Rupert Sanders upends fantasy cinema in ways I hadn't thought possible, blending the hokey realms of swords-and-sorcery with the epic scale, heart, and humor of the original Star Wars trilogy. Snow White is framed as the same kind of self-serious period epic as LOTR and, to an extent, the Harry Potter franchise, but it also contains within it a wise, irreverent spirit that says everything those films took a decade to say--and more--in just over two hours.

Key to the film's success is the mission of the screenwriters. John Lee Hancock, Evan Daugherty, and Hossein Amini don't settle for slapping a fresh effects skin on the Disney version of a classic fairy tale (as Tim Burton and company did in the puzzling and atrocious Alice in Wonderland). Instead, they treat the story as an original concept, one with which they're free to play and tweak so that the audience is never sure which expectation will be blown at any given moment. Yes, there are poisoned apples, dwarves, and a Black Forest. But Prince Charming (Sam Claflin) turns out to be important in a very different way to this story, and we learn a bit more about the Evil Queen. And if you're inclined to read contemporary metaphors into throw-away cinema, as I am, you'll also find ample evidence of a disdain for the so-called one-percent and a wildly inspiring blueprint for mass uprising.**

I wouldn't dare spoil the film. Snow White and the Huntsman needs to be seen fresh, on the big screen, by everyone who loves movies. In addition to the story's new take on familiar material, there's so much to recommend, visually. From the eerily beautiful skeleton details that costumer Colleen Atwood includes on Theron's wedding dress to, hell, everything that production designer Dominic Watkins brings to the screen, every inch of every frame boasts a unique and personal vision of otherworldly excess. By now you've seen the iconic "milk bath" from the trailers, but Sanders fetishizes the image; as his camera holds on Theron's body emerging in slow motion from a pool of eternal youth, the meaning of what we see changes. The purity of the white liquid becomes viscous and tainted as it pours down the body of something very old and very wicked.

And I can't tell you the last time I looked at a blockbuster's creature design without yawning. Snow White presents us with a few new species that are genuinely interesting to take in--especially the bridge troll, which is a literal manifestation of an age-old idea. The TV ads give glimpses of the Black Forest's perverse wonders, but you have to see them in context to appreciate the acid-trip nightmare of a hellmouth this setting presents to Snow White's characters.

Speaking of nightmares, this is definitely not a movie for children. Between the surreal imagery straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to a teenage Snow White (Stewart) getting felt up by a grotesque old man (Sam Spruell), and all the bird-heart-eating, soul-devouring mayhem in between, Sanders puts the "grim" back in Grimm in ways that recall The Dark Crystal--minus the uplifting parts.

The ideas and visual execution are only half of what makes the story work. The other half belongs to great casting. Theron is a delicious villain who sells the dilemma of a sorceress trapped by vanity and determined to survive. She's all calculation and calm until her plans begin to fall through--at which point she becomes a shrieking devil-woman. These are the roughest parts to watch, frankly, as she partakes a bit too much in the ol' Black Forest ham. But mostly, she's a fine, tragic figure who I was sad to see go (SPOILER!).

And where has Kristen Stewart been hiding all this talent? If you said "Adventureland" just now, prepare for a bloody lip next time we meet. Not only does the actress transcend her standard "Sullen and Hungry" mode, she pulls off a far more convincing English accent than Theron. I rooted for her character from the beginning to the end, meaning I was actually invested in the inevitable Good Versus Evil showdown. Snow White's grand charge into battle is stirring and triumphant.

In fairness, this is partially due to Stewart's selling of the character's arc, and partially thanks to the filmmakers' decision to use actual--what's the word...oh, yeah, PEOPLE--in the climactic army battle. Unlike LOTR, Alice in Wonderland, and every other movie to capitalize on the advent of semi-realistic computer animation, Snow White and the Huntsman presents a penultimate fight in which it appears as though the actors are claustrophobic from having to press up against shields and dodge swords.

I'm also a big fan of Chris Hemsworth now. Building on the promise of his funny turn in The Cabin in the Woods, he plays the Huntsman as a sarcastic but troubled rogue, the kind of dashing cad who'd probably get in a fistfight with Han Solo--and buy him a beer afterwards. His introduction marks a turning point in the movie, giving the audience a different perspective on a world cast into darkness by magic. The self-seriousness I mentioned before is present in Snow White's opening, but is quickly turned on its ear by a guy who knows the story's terrain--and thus finds it utterly ridiculous.

Lastly, I've gotta give a shout-out to the dwarves. It was jarring, frankly, to see that instead of enlisting actual little people in the roles of Snow White's woodland companions, the filmmakers chose to digitally superimpose "regular" actors' heads (sorry, I don't know how else to say it) onto smaller bodies. At least they went for the gold with their choices: I could've watched an entire movie about a surly, mythical Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Toby Jones bitching about the Queen and tripping on mushrooms. These aren't your Disney dwarves; bitter to a man and decked out in Middle-Earth-meets-Road Warrior-chic, they add to the film's evolving tone. As we drive farther away from Snow White's castle, past the Black Forest, and into the realms beyond, the landscape gets trickier and weirder.

Despite my absolute love for this movie, there's one really disturbing chunk that should have been excised in the name of clarity and taste. As with many modern mythos, Snow White features a sloppy Christ allegory; this time, it's a girl. You see, Snow White isn't just the daughter of a fallen king who's destined to bring balance to the Force. Sorry, I meant "Narnia". Wait, no, to the land. She's also the essence of life itself, a healer who can bring things back from the brink of death. We learn this in a clunky scene that comes complete with Midichlorian-style exposition, where Snow White communes with a magnificent spirit elk or something. Moments later, though, she finds herself unable to save a friend who's been run through with an arrow.

Yep, I was rolling my eyes at that nonsense, too. The worst part is that nothing else in the film calls back to it. Had the writers left this scene in draft two, Snow White would have been three steps closer to flawless. On the bright side, we never again visit this wing of the Cuckoo Castle, and are free to resume the story with the simple "disgraced, left-for-dead princess regains her will and the fighting heart of her people" storyline, already in progress.

Minor quibbles aside, I was blown away by this movie. I went in expecting something I'd seen a hundred times before and came away breathing with new lungs, seeing with new eyes. Aside from weddings, funerals, or Christenings, there's no better use of your time this weekend than seeing Snow White and the Huntsman.

Then again, I'm the idiot who hates The Lord of the Rings.

*Need proof? Check out Randall's hilarious, deadly accurate breakdown of the movies in Clerks 2.

**But I guess that's the kind of nutty magic you get when teaming a novice screenwriter with the guy who wrote The Blind Side and the guy who wrote Drive. Yeah, think about that shit.