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Review: 'Snow White & the Huntsman' Is A Beautiful Slog

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
May 31, 2012 10:10 AM
21 Comments
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Snow White And The Huntsman, Kristen Stewart

2012 has already delivered one big-budget movie based on the classic Grimm Brothers' fairy tale "Snow White." Earlier this spring arrived Tarsem's fizzy, Bollywood-ish "Mirror Mirror," which saw Julia Roberts vamping it up as the evil queen, surrounded by the most cheesily phony-looking sets this side of a Hammer horror movie -- if the movie had been any lighter it would have blown off the screen. And this week lands another: "Snow White & the Huntsman," an oppressively grim (pun very much intended) take on the fairy tale that instead favors mood, menace, and a kind of earthy grittiness, over the airier "Mirror Mirror." The problem is, that for all its frequently jaw-dropping visual panache, in narrative terms it sputters and stalls, sagging under the weight of its visual opulence.

"Snow White & the Huntsman" starts off well enough, churning through its predictable bedtime back-story – Snow White is a young girl born to a king and queen who possess an ethereal, almost otherworldly connection to the mystical world of nature (birds and other creatures love her). Sadly, her mother passes away and her father, after waging a battle against a magical army, becomes enchanted by a beautiful stranger named Ravenna (Charlize Theron). On their wedding night, Ravenna poisons and then stabs the king, overthrowing the castle with the help of her simpering brother Finn (Sam Spruell, saddled with an indefensibly bad bowl cut). Ravenna imprisons Snow White in a tower and, as learned through this expository-laden dialogue and overly long prologue, casts the kingdom into ruin and despair, as evil queens are wont to do.

Chris Hemsworth, Dwarves, SWATH

Cutting ahead several years, the queen is now obsessed with black magic and is guided by her magic mirror -- which oozes out of the frame ominously and greets her as a golden, hooded character. When asked, the mirror informs her that she won't be the fairest of the land until she kills and consumes the heart of Snow White (now petulant and played by Kristen Stewart). Ravenna tasks her brother (their relationship definitely sporting a incestuous "Game of Thrones"-y vibe) to kill Snow White, but she escapes the palace walls and flees into the dark woods. Luckily for her, Ravenna's considerable and often showy powers do not work in these dark and haunted forests (she can turn into a flock of ravens, for instance). And like much of the movie it's never explained why her powers don't work in the tenebrous woods or even, geographically, where the dark woods are.

This is where the titular huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth, again tasked with looking handsome and carrying a large weapon), comes in. Something of a lowlife drunk and a troublemaker, the Huntsman accepts the queen's proposal to take down Snow White because she promises to bring his wife back from the dead if he succeeds. "A life for a life," she purrs. Upon entering the forest, though, he has a sudden change of heart and understands that the queen's promise is empty, so he flees with the young Snow White. This is where the movie begins to fall apart, seemingly getting tangled in the dark forest's gnarled underbrush, and never really gaining its footing again. It doesn't help that Hemsworth's motivation from turning selfish to selfless in a heartbeat is never tested and or explored. Some conflict might have been nice, but this film is only interested in moving forward; at what turns out to be deadening pace.

Snow White And The Huntsman Sam Clafin

Once Snow White and the Huntsman set out on their series of increasingly low-stakes adventures, Ravenna is almost completely out of the movie, which is a real shame. The opening forty-five minutes or so are ruled almost exclusively by Theron and her operatic (some will say shrill and melodramatic) performance, which involves a lot of screaming, intense eyeshadow-soaked glares, and a milk bath that leaves her looking even more like an ivory statue of perfection. The performance isn't arch and knowing like Roberts in "Mirror Mirror," and has flashes of brilliance --  particularly in the opening when she drives a knife into the king's chest while simultaneously ranting about how men have been responsible for making her this way. When discussing how powerful males use women and then cast them aside when they reach a certain age, she might as well be describing Hollywood's hiring process.

When the movie is largely robbed of her deliciously evil, occasionally over-the-top presence, the increasingly deadly-serious picture also loses its only sense of playfulness, not to mention menace. Instead, director Rupert Sanders, a British commercial helmer, occasionally cuts back to the castle, where Theron is busy doing something that we have to assume is evil, but doesn't do much in terms of advancing the plot or putting our characters, who are now forced to trudge through a series of banal encounters, in any more danger.

Snow White And The Huntsman Charlize Theron

After surviving the dark woods (which include a giant, Guillermo del Toro-ish troll) Snow White and the Huntsman tromp along a kind of picaresque narrative. Again, this is peppered with some really interesting ideas and situations, particularly when they come across a tribe of women who have scarred their faces because, without beauty, the queen has no interest in them, but is more often than not painfully drawn-out filler. Things pick up slightly when they finally meet the dwarves (there are eight this time instead of seven), but this is mostly because they are played by big stars like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost, ingeniously shrunk to diminutive proportions but just as rude and rough around the edges as you'd expect. They are convinced that Snow White is destined to free the land of its darkness, and set about assembling an army to retake the thrown.

Making considerably less sense is an interlude where Snow White goes into a magical, fairy-filled garden and encounters a spirit god directly lifted from Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" (a great, many-antlered deity). It can't be enough that Stewart's Snow White is strong and smart, these days all of these fantasy movies have to impart a sense of spiritual predestination, that her destiny, and not actual personal agency, is mostly to blame for her empowerment. It's a pretty obnoxious conceit, especially considering some of the earlier, more enlightened gender politics of the movie, and partnered with the somewhat off-putting visuals (tiny sprites emerge from the chest of sparrows), turns the movie into even more of a drag.

Snow White And The Huntsman Chris Hemsworth

By the time the movie reaches its sub-"Lord of the Rings" climax (complete with boorishly loud and cliched speeches about heart and such), with Snow White wearing silvery armor and Hemsworth's Han Solo-y Eric finally coming to terms with his inner hero (Hemsworth does adequate work here, adding more layers than the script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini probably suggests), a number of "once upon a time" beats have been ticked off with workmanlike efficiency: poison apple (check); exiled do-gooder wanting Snow White's hand (check, said do-gooder played by Sam Claflin, just as wooden and pretty as he was in last year's 'Pirates of the Caribbean' sequel); evil queen's transformation into old lady (check); Snow White's brief but reversible death (check; this time she's laid out on a bed of animal skins instead of entombed in a glass coffin). At this point all those beautiful, tangential stylistic flourishes that the movie nursed in its first two acts feel even more like a burden – with a two hour plus running time, all you can think of is, "if they had cut that stuff out we would have been much further along by now."

Which is to say that "Snow White & the Huntsman" is often a visually gorgeous movie, at times genuinely jaw-dropping (like when Ravenna is crawling out of a puddle of goop made from dead ravens), but the rest of the film is totally drab. It's colorless, both literally (everything is charcoal and inky) and in terms of tone and texture – there's nothing the least bit funny or exciting or poppy. It's a movie made for children that is often shockingly dark and violent, but at the same time probably too frivolous for adults. The sweet spot they were aiming for is clearly Tim Burton's reimagined "Alice in Wonderland" (they both share pushy producer Joe Roth), but whereas Burton's, for all its faults, was singularly identifiable as a springy, colorful romp, "Snow White & the Huntsman" is humorless, and wants to be taken dead-seriously despite being based on source material most memorably brought to the screen in the form of a cartoon. "Snow White & the Huntsman" may be occasionally beautiful to look at (its costumes, aesthetics, etc.), but as the evil queen teaches us, it comes at a cost – in this sense, narrative momentum, actual stakes, and above all, an enjoyable experience. [C-]

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21 Comments

  • Veronica | September 20, 2012 6:49 AMReply

    Another rip-off from Miyazaki is when Ravenna gives the apple to Snowwhite.. then she goes back to the Castle hurt and bleeding crows.. thats exactly like the scene of Howl's Moving Castle.
    I´m really angry about this and Mononoke´s rip-off ( and etc)... This film was a patchwork of other films and the actors didnt act well, except maybe for the dworfs.

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  • Maya | June 7, 2012 10:56 PMReply

    I watched this movie with some friends today, and we all agreed on one thing: Casting Kristen Stewart for the role of Snow White was a big mistake. While she certainly has the looks, her acting is just incredibly basic. You might as well turn the movie into a drinking game. "Take a shot whenever Kristen has her mouth open." Even during the happy ending, she wears her trademark open-mouthed look of suffering. It really gets annoying after a while. Regarding Ravenna, the attempt at giving her a background story was terribly half-hearted.
    IMO they should also have cut out the scene with the "Sanctuary". Not only is it a shameless rip-off of Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke", it doesn't fit with the more grim tone of the rest of the movie. Even using it as a contrast does not work. Another thing I have to say is: the trailers spoil pretty much everything, and the ending of the movie is predictable. Now to the positive things: Charlize Theron plays a deliciously wicked queen, the fighting scenes are pretty good, visually it is almost flawless (save for a few CG shots from high up) and the soundtrack is great.

  • MovieCritic | June 3, 2012 9:46 PMReply

    I loved the originality. I could have loved to have the queen to have been seen more during the woods scenes...maybe as a ghost or something...but...in all I liked it. Its not for 13 yo's for sure. I wouldn't want to give kids any ideas..like eating the hearts of pigeons or wearing finger claws...but I really like it. It was worth the time to see.

  • Syeethed | June 8, 2012 10:39 AM

    A lot of posers nowadays dont know anything about originality. Thanks alot mtv. Thanks a lot...

  • Boring | June 4, 2012 1:18 AM

    Except nothing about it was original, but whatever. Not sure how ripping off Legend, Miyazaki and LOTR qualifies as "original."

  • Oogle monster | June 3, 2012 12:35 AMReply

    Few notes: 1) Gaspar- You are out of your mind regarding this myth of Charlize Theron's post-Oscar career slide. If anything, she has consistently done great work post-Oscar. In fact, her performance in Young Adult should put to rest any Faye Dunaway career comparisons. She's quite good in SWATH... and the film suffers when she's not onscreen. More so, the shoddy script and fixation on Snow White's journey/Kristin Stewart unnecessarily prolonged screen time take away from Theron's gift and mesmerizing screen presence 2) Roe- While I don't hate The Stewart as an actor (I found her quite likable in Into the Wild and Adventureland), she's terribly miscast as Snow White. The fact that she only has a few lines and in those few lines you can make out how inconsistent/unbelievable her accent is is saying something. Felicity Jones, in my highly educated opinion, would have made for the PERFECT Snow White. 3) As I mentioned earlier, Theron's scenes are the highlight (s) of SWATH. Hemsworth is quite good as well and his rapport with Snow White and the dwarves is enjoyable but overall he comes off as disposable character... especially in the end when there's a nonsensical "I'm looking into your eyes so you should totally know what I'm saying without me actually saying anything" scene. 4) Clafin does nothing for the film other than provide some substantial eye candy and even then he's out-eye candied by Hemsworth. 5) There are about 4-5 scenes that could have easily been cut. The film is long but for no good reason. The scene where K Stew is brought back to life and goes off on her tangent is THE STUPIDEST scene in the entire film and should have been left on the editing floor along with every other scene Clafin is in. 6) No sequels should ever be made. Seriously. No.

  • Roe | June 2, 2012 10:23 PMReply

    SW & Huntsman was awesome......Kristen Stewart was good...it's good she broke away from Twilight.......other roles are working for her....also the movie has a bit of twist.....enjoy it! :)

  • holly | June 2, 2012 12:38 PMReply

    How the hell does Clafin keep getting work. Terribel actor.

  • Gaspar Marino | June 1, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    I agree 100%. Rather boring! Bad acting from Kristin Stewart and Chris Hemsworth. And, I guess Charlize Theron is now going the post-Oscar career slide, like Faye Dunaway did in her career. One bitchy, monstrous character after another, or, a big budget disaster a la "The Towering Inferno". Poor Faye, even poorer Charlize.

  • KitCon | June 1, 2012 9:27 AMReply

    After the trailers for SWATH and Mirror Mirror were released I don't think anyone imagined that they would end up almost tied on RT. Mirror was almost as expected, this clearly disappointed.

  • joe | May 31, 2012 11:49 AMReply

    you mean princess mononoke

  • Christian | May 31, 2012 10:52 AMReply

    It's fundamentally pointless to even attempt to adapt another version of Snow White after Disney's masterpiece.

  • Olivia | May 31, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    The god is from Princess Mononoke, not Spirited Away...

  • Malem | May 31, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    When they cast Stewart I know it would suck, just as she sucks any life out of her characters.

  • Mike T | June 5, 2012 2:59 AM

    i agree i see her in a movie and i go good lord this looked cool till i saw her in it...

  • Jenn | June 1, 2012 7:00 PM

    Stewart's performance was not great. She just goes through the motions. I recently read part of an interview she gave to one of the magazines, cant remember which. Although what she said made me want to puke, it made sense. She said that nothing bad has ever happened to her, she has lead a happy non eventful life. She's got nothing to pull from, no emotional experience. It is almost painful watching her.
    Her and I can switch lives any time she wants, I will live out my dream of being an actress, and she can have her pic of daily drama. Sounds like a win, win to me :)

  • The Playlist | May 31, 2012 11:53 AM

    @Muse Like i said, it was too over-the-top for me. Entertainment Weekly, "got it." Are you suggesting I didn't? I can't have the opinion that is was far too melodramatic for my taste?

  • Mike | May 31, 2012 11:23 AM

    Notice she is only mentioned briefly in the review? Not sure what that says about her performance...

  • Muse | May 31, 2012 11:10 AM

    But in this review, I got the impression Theron was the best part. Flashes of briliance and that the film is dull when her deliciously evil performance was on screen. She was going for over the top influenced by Nicholson in the Shining. Entertainment Weekly got it.

  • The Playlist | May 31, 2012 10:51 AM

    She's actually perfectly fine in the movie. As is most of the cast (Theron was too over-the-top for me). The movie itself, well, that's another thing, and the review is clear in its shortcomings (though I mighta been harsher on it).

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