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Black Gate Goes to the Summer Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

snow_white_and_the_huntsman_posterSummer movies, like boxes of Crackerjacks (does anyone still eat those? I never see them for sale any more), come packed with surprises. And, like Crackerjacks toys, often they are lame surprises. Let-downs. Occasionally — and it usually happens only once per summer — the toy you dig out of the same-old same-old caramel and peanut glop is a Hot Wheels car with flame details and killer sci-fi spoilers that somebody in the Crackerjack plant accidentally dropped into the box while leaving hastily for a smoke break.

Snow White and the Huntsmen is one of those positive summer surprises. I hope it isn’t the last “Hot Wheels” shock of the season, but in the month-long lull that followed the boffo fun of The Avengers, I’ll take it and cling to it.

A high-fantasy film like Snow White and the Huntsman (the ampersand only appears on publicity material) should not be a hard-sell to Black Gate readers. But the marketing and trailers pushed hard to get the Twilight fan-base to show up, so fantasy lovers pegged it early on as “not for us.” But it is! The Twilight viewers will love it, but they’ll like it for the same reasons other viewers will: it’s a broad-appealing, well-constructed, marvelous-looking, fun fantasy romp.

And, if it were not for a major casting blunder, I could easily see myself adding Snow White and the Huntsman to my Blu-ray shelf the week it comes out. I still will purchase it, but a few months after its street-date when I can get a bargain on it used.

The unpleasant truth is the piece of miscasting is monumental: the first of the two title characters, the figure who gives her name to the legend. My dear Snow White. Played in a perpetual coma by Kristen Stewart.

Ah, K-Stew, K-Stew . . . what are we to do with you? Even under excellent directors like Greg Mottola and Bill Condon, it seems nothing can unfreeze Stewart from her personal iceberg. I’ve searched for an appropriate way to describe Stewart’s performances, and I think I finally hit on it: she’s a girl in the middle of the “you are getting very sleeeeeeepy” part of a hypnosis act. Her Snow White deep in the suspended animation from biting the legendary poison apple is no different than her Snow White rousing people to war, or waking up nature with her radiant powers (snicker), or swinging around a sword while dressed in plate armor. She might as well eat poison apples the whole film, it would make no difference in her acting.

She looks like this the whole movie, folks.

She looks like this the whole movie, folks.

This is not a fatal flaw, but it does significant damage to the movie. Snow White is the core of the story: we must believe this young woman’s existence is an antidote to the venom of her evil stepmother, Queen Ravenna; that she can provide the salve to the wounded heart of the huntsman; and that she can lead an army of rebels with only a single speech. K-Stew blows every one of these scenes. Her rabble-rousing speech is a joke, and I felt so sorry for all the other actors and extras on set who had to pretend this uninteresting woman just shouting her lines with no actual passion is a reason to go slaughter the bad guys. Snow White’s encounter with the White Hart is a near-magical sequence, realized with painterly execution — except, K-Stew’s Snow White is supposed to be causing it and therefore I can’t fully fall into the intended spell. And poor Chris Hemsworth tries so very hard to connect with her, but he only manages the chemistry in a scene where she’s temporarily dead.

Now allow me to cheer you up and provide four reasons why, this huge problem aside, Snow White and the Huntsman is worth your time as a fantasy fan.

1. The Rest of the Cast is Gangbusters

. . . and they’re having a great time while managing to work with the movie’s tone.

This is really Charlize Theron’s film — even though she has less screen time than either Hemsworth or Stewart — and Theron seems aware of her centrality. This isn’t the type of performance that wins Oscars (she has one already), but it is the type that makes a summer movie much more fun. Theron has perfected her “Maleficent Lessons,” making evil very dark and very sexy at the same time. The evil queen Ravenna (why that city’s name? not criticism, just curious) is a blast as a dark sorceress, exploding with arrogance and fits of madness, appearing unstoppable until the climax. And you gotta love watching Charlize Theron throwing Kristen Stewart around like she was a sock monkey.

I have this thing about Evil Queens, so . . . wow.

I have this thing about Evil Queens, so . . . wow.

The script makes a brief attempt to give Ravenna a tragic backstory to explain her history of stabbing the kings she marries, but it is unnecessary and I’m glad the movie never dwells on it past a short flashback. Ravenna as pure evil for its own sake is acceptable. We need more one-dimensional villains around. (Never thought I’d encourage one-dimensional characters, but for some movie types, bulky psychological folders add nothing. Evil Queen! Yeah! EVIL QUEEN!)

Playing the second half of the title is Chris “Damn-I’m-Having-a-Great-Year” Hemsworth. He’s in Thor-mode, hurling axes and hurting things, sporting a rustic English accent that isn’t necessarily “polished” but definitely “works” as far as the tone goes. He carries the bitterness of the story: he lost his wife, and agrees to hunt down Snow White for Ravenna because of a promise that she will resurrect his dead love. (Come on, Chris, you seriously believed her? She’s evil! EEE-VIL!) But Hemsworth pulls off the personal tragedy without falling into a Bog of Mopey. Even in a deep funk, Hemsworth comes across very energetic. Yeah, he struggles across from Kristen “I Sank the Titantic” Stewart, but thank Odin the man is putting in the effort. His few scenes with Theron are prickly goodness and the dramatic high points of the early running time.

(A few days after seeing the film, I experienced a revelation that should have come to me during the major Ravenna-Huntsman scene: Charlize Theron should play Amora the Enchantress in the upcoming Thor 2! At this point, Marvel hasn’t revealed all the villains for the movie, but the Enchantress is my number one pick for Thor’s big adversary. And now I know exactly which actress I want to slip on the green Asgardian outfit.)

Oh, the seven dwarves . . . yes, they’re here, even though the trailers kept them well disguised. The script wisely prevents them from turning into the center ring of the story and instead fits them neatly into Snow White and her brawny savior fleeing through the woods. And what a great line-up of actors who’ve undergone the digital shrinking: Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost. The dwarves manage to be funny (right at the point when the film needs a humor boost), surly, and touching. Bob Hoskins is the actor who hits the most passionate notes among this ensemble, but McShane ends up as the hardened butt-kicker with the most appeal. The dwarves are all great and may be the biggest surprise of the film.

Props also to Sam Spruell, who plays Ravenna’s brother and stooge, Finn. Spruell is stuck with the silly Prince Valiant haircut, but overcomes it to be a weasly counterpart to Theron’s pomposity and good action foil for Hemsworth.

chris-hemsworth-and-the-hunter

“Hey, Ravenna . . . you’re adopted!”

2. Excellent Fantasy Production Design

The art direction and production design stomps in the dust two of last year’s sloppy epic fantasies, Conan the Thing I’d Like to Forget Happened and Immortals. Both of those films sport slathered-on exaggerated fantasy appearances, but forgot to have them fit together or make the least bit of sense aside from “hey, this might look cool.” Snow White and the Huntsman simply looks right. It has a Charles Perrault/Brothers Grimm sheen with dashes of the bizarre Lord Dunsany and the deeper European mythic. This is a setting where the divisions between the evil-stocked castle of the queen, the dangers of the Dark Forest, and the light of faery are thin enough that they can comfortably co-exist. This extends to the costumes and visual effect as as well, and James Newton Howard’s score is orchestrally organic. The only piece of design that feels too modern-blockbuster is the Mirror, which has transformed into the T-1000, tweaking a solid and simple concept too hard for the sake of extra CGI.

3. The Source Material Gets Its Dark Due

This is where director Rupert Sanders, a commercial director on his first feature, deserves the biggest credit. I’m sick of whimsical and ironic takes on fairy-tales, such as this year’s earlier “Snow White” film, Mirror Mirror. Snow White and the Huntsman has definitely Tolkiened-up its action and downplayed some of the lighter elements of the legend, but the folktale the Brothers Grimm recorded and which Disney immortalized for the screen is still present and recognizable, with all its sinister, disturbing themes.

4. The Film Kills Stuff Real Good with Sharp Things

The battle scenes and action beats work. It’s a tiny triumph today to praise an action scene simply because I can tell who is killing whom. And when “whom” is sometimes crazy iron-shard monsters, the triumph gets a bit larger. Hemsworth wields a mean axe, and for a PG-13 movie, there’s some deliciously deep impacts with the sharp-edged things. Good times, and it gave me my epic fantasy fix. This connects with the sober approach to the legend, because Snow White and the Huntsman is fine with allowing the blood flow.

But . . .

Kristen Stewart. So for all the praise I’ve given Snow White and the Huntsman, I do have to dock it for that. Keep this in mind when looking at my rating below.

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: Actually, this Friday. Prometheus. Maybe you’ve heard of it.


Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author. He received the Writers of the Future Award in 2011 for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and has two stories forthcoming in Black Gate, as well as a currently available e-book in the same setting. He also knows Godzilla personally. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.

23 Comments »

  1. I took Youngest Wife on a date to this movie as per your recommendation. It was spectacular.

    The Twighlers (if that is the term—like Trekkies but they love Twighlight), they will love seeing K-Stew, me not so much. I’d say that Charlize Theron, even forced to be one dimensional was more dynamic than K-Stew at her greatest moment (waking up from sleep). Charlize was a powerful presence.

    Chris Hemsworth, what can I say? He is talented, buffed, and manly. Anyone who swings an ax and doesn’t shave for weeks on end and still gets the girls to sigh has my respect. I might be getting a man crush on him. I’m trying to think of a movie that he was in that I didn’t like his character. Youngest wife likes him too and we agreed after the movie that should either Charlize make advances toward me or Chris to her that we would agree to part company after our 27 years together. After all, imagine the bragging rights one would have if Chris Hemsworth took your girl?

    And Nick Frost was a great dwarf!
    Folks, that is a great movie and one I’ll buy the moment it is available but you should see it on the big screen. When I watched it the audience reacted to it. I haven’t heard an audience react to that since, well, okay, the Avengers.

    Comment by Wild Ape - June 5, 2012 8:38 am

  2. Your review said you were going to give us five reasons, and you only have three. And those three are numbered 1, 2, and 4.

    Comment by Drance - June 5, 2012 8:50 am

  3. Also I thought the Troll had more convincing acting than K-Stew in that scene.

    Comment by Wild Ape - June 5, 2012 9:56 am

  4. Drance, before you ask for your money back from Ryan, I’ll give you a few reasons: #3 The dwarves are bitchin cool. And #5 Charlize Theron will make you drool (possibly Chris Hemsworth too)
    #6 Your other options for movies are: Chernobyl Diaries, Men in Black 3, the Dictator, and Battleship. #23 Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Afleck are NOT in it. #8 Hey, you could always see the Avengers AGAIN but why not wear that out when the DVD arrives?

    Comment by Wild Ape - June 5, 2012 10:05 am

  5. Nice review, Ryan. I enjoyed the movie very much. I’m not sure, though, why everyone and their brother keeps lambasting Stewart. Her only job in this movie–really–was to be beautiful. “The fairest of them all”…and she does that to the tee. I personally enjoyed it when she got all fired up and was yelling to inspire her people to attack…yet there were several moments when I expected her to give a great line and instead she merely stayed silent…so perhaps the fault lies somewhat with the script when it comes to her “iciness” or what-have-you. The dwarves are so excellent in this movie, with so much personality, they completely make up for Snow White’s rather bland persona. And the scene in the fairy wood is literally enchanting. Charlize, of course, does steel the show as the maniacal sorceress…but I’d say the dwarves nearly steal the show just as much. They were a true pleasure to watch. My only problem with the film (which I liked a lot) was that the ending seemed a little lacking–there didn’t seem to be an actual army behind Snow as she stormed the castle–only about 40 armored men on horseback. I was expecting at least a few hundred soldiers… Still, this movie does a terrific job of taking one of the oldest, most cliche-ridden stories and presenting it in a fresh new way with amazing visuals and kick-ass casting–although I probably would have preferred Scarlet Johanssen to Kristen Stewart, KS served just fine for me as the Fair One. I do wonder who kept cutting her lines, though… :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 5, 2012 12:16 pm

  6. Sorry, gang. I’m the new assistant website editor and I’ve had to play a little catch-up on reviewing blog posts. The “five” reasons have been corrected to “three”. Great review, Ryan. I was going to pass on this one for the same reasons you didn’t expect much from it. But now … maybe I’ll venture into my local cineplex and check it out.

    Comment by MichaelPenkas - June 5, 2012 12:57 pm

  7. We all fall asleep at the wheel from time to time Penkas. I recommend this as a good date flick but caution: leave your Thor’s helmet at home and shave or else your girl won’t be able to keep her hands off of you. Hemsworth has that kind of effect on women. They don’t go for the Apes or the Beta Ray Bill types so much anymore. Jus’ sayin’.

    Comment by Wild Ape - June 5, 2012 1:18 pm

  8. Man, that KS cannot act is a fatal flaw.

    And it wasn’t the only one in this mess of plot holes.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - June 5, 2012 2:09 pm

  9. Actually, there are four reasons (sorry, missed my numbering issue in that sentence) but since I made an HTML glitch, the heading for #3 vanished. So Michael, I went back and restored heading for #3 and changed it to four. (What can I say—I do these late at night sometimes and odd things happen.)

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 5, 2012 2:43 pm

  10. Foxessa: “Plot holes?” This is an ancient story — a German fairy tale known from many countries in Europe, the best known version being the German one collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The movie was pretty faithful to the old-school story. To what plot holes are you referring?

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 5, 2012 3:21 pm

  11. From where cometh the horse? From whence cometh riding capacity? From where cometh the awesome fighting ability? From where etc? The girl spent like ten years in solitary in a tower!

    I’m not the only one by far to see this thing as without making sense:

    http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/06/so-did-you-understand-snow-white-and-the-huntsman

    http://www.vulture.com/2012/06/things-we-thought-while-watching-snow-white-huntsman.html

    http://oyceter.dreamwidth.org/980169.html

    Comment by C - Foxessa - June 5, 2012 4:29 pm

  12. As far as saying it’s a fairy tale so this doesn’t matter, here is what someone has to say about that:

    So, in trying to ease everyone into this, I wanted to talk about the storied history of Snow White on film, and how the various adaptations of the fairy tale reflect the cultural conversation in which each film was made. Then I realized that this movie wasn’t really interested in the actual fairy tale, so I would just be writing about a series of Snow White movies for my own amusement, and ignoring the film right in front of us that has so many other things that happened to it (because this is a very “What happened to this film?” film).

    So, Snow White and the Hunstman is kind of a mess and I have a lot of questions because I still feel like someone and their anxious production designer filmed a draft by accident

    http://glvalentine.livejournal.com/337619.html

    Comment by C - Foxessa - June 5, 2012 4:36 pm

  13. I don’t think it was “kind of a mess” at all. I don’t think it was “perfect” either.

    There’s a theme in the movie that the land itself is tied into Snow White’s life force. This was evoked in the birds who helped her escape. The horse was part of that–the magical land itself helping her escape evil. The same reason the White Hart appeared to her in the fairy wood. SHE is THE LAND. This explains everything that you bring into question–she is a MAGICAL BEING. The secret of her magic is found in her beauty…which is also the secret of Ravenna’s sorcery–she draws power from living beauty.

    Also, any fantasy work can be torn apart if you try to apply logic to it. I think the Land=SnowWhite theme could have been made more explicit, however. It was strongly hinted at–not made overt. Just like the kiss that awakened her from the sleep spell–it was because her True Love kissed her (the Huntstman)–when the prince’s kiss did nothing.

    The movie left a lot unsaid, when perhaps it should have said more. However, the blind dwarf revealed a lot of this magical stuff in his dialogue. These weren’t plot holes–they were magical elements. This movie isn’t mean to reflect reality in any way whatsoever.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 5, 2012 5:15 pm

  14. My guess as to why Theron’s character is named Ravenna is that it’s a little nod to the magnificent Martha Wells. In The Element of Fire, the queen of Ile Rien is named Ravenna, and she’s a persuasively awesome monarch. She comes up in various references to Ile Rien’s history in the books set centuries later, The Death of the Necromancer and the Fall of Ile Rien series.

    Remember Wells’s short stories about the wizard hunting duo Giliead and Ilias from previous Black Gate issues? They’re major characters in The Fall of Ile Rien, and spend a lot of time on a ship called the Queen Ravenna.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - June 5, 2012 10:31 pm

  15. Good point, Sarah. Since I’m currently researching a novel that will take place in the city of Ravenna during the Ravenna Exarchate (sixth-seventh century CE), I’m rather fixated on the city name, so that’s why I made the connection.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 6, 2012 12:18 am

  16. Your novel sounds delicious. I’m picturing cover art with luminous mosaics.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - June 8, 2012 12:17 am

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