Thursday, May 31, 2012

'Snow White and the Huntsman' on a quest for female franchise


Give me a band of heroes on a quest any day. Wielding swords, axes and a bow with a quill full of arrows, this fellowship must make a trek through forbidden lands to do epic battle against enemy forces and overthrow an unjust ruler or magician who has enslaved a kingdom. Along the way, stronger loyalties are forged, romance emerges, heroes die - some are resurrected - and much blood is shed in battles filled with brutality and badassery.

These are the staples of the fantasy genre and, when done right, a rousing movie or story can be even more invigorating than a fun night at Medieval Times. But what elevates the best of the genre to truly great levels is the awareness of human behavior. In a world of magic, the exploration of humanity – in both its selfless acts and depraved depths – is what makes these stories more than just swords-and-orcs tales. J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and many other fantasy authors knows this.

But it is also why the new film Snow White and the Huntsman never moves beyond a superficial attempt to be a Lord of the Rings (Lady of the rings?) for a female demographic. There are women in the lead, but they never feel like believable leaders...(read more after the jump)

Directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Kristen Stewart (Twilight), Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers), Charlize Theron (Prometheus) and seven recognizable dwarves, the movie is loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. But instead of a family-friendly animated Disney film, this outing aims for dark.

After she marries/murders a benevolent king, the evil sorceress queen Ravenna (Theron) unleashes magic that kills the lands and locks up the king’s daughter Snow (Stewart). Her peculiar decision to simply not bump off Snow – who everyone already assumes is dead – comes back to haunt the youth-obsessed Ravenna when her magic mirror reveals the princess is the “fairest of them all,” and will be her undoing. Snow White does escape and wanders into the wraith-infested Dark Forest. She eventually engages in some troll-whispering, and befriends her would-be assassin, the Huntsman (Hemsworth). Following a few pit stops to make nice with a clan of women and meet up with the aforementioned dwarves, Snow sets out to build an army as a warrior princess and take down her evil stepmother.

Milky Theron. Courtesy Universal
Over the course of a too-long 127 minutes, the film unleashes all manner of fantasy tropes randomly thrown at the audience to prove its genre bona fides. Elements of light magic, such as stags with branches for antlers and fairies, guide the princess – because, after all, Snow White is “The One” - and protect her from dark magic monsters and Ravenna’s creeper brother with a blonde bowl cut, Finn (Sam Spruell).

Also, as has become something of a go-to effect to build tension, there are a lot of slowed-down action moments and thundering sound effects. And the magic of Snow’s world seems to rely on objects’ tiresome tendency to melt into gooey sludge or shatter into shrapnel made of butterflies, crows or obsidian. That's not to suggest these don't look cool. The troll design is impressive, and the Sanctuary fairy land has some really nice touches like a tortoise covered in moss and flowers, and the little mushrooms with eyes. And there is no ignoring the stark, sexy impact of Theron emerging from a magical milk bath, completely coated in the thick stuff.

Visually impressive, if a tad repetitive, it’s not the effects that rob Snow White and the Huntsman from being a female film fantasy; it is the lack of substance to complement the style.

Warrior Princess Stewart, courtesy Universal
Stewart’s performance here is defined by either her signature perma-grimace or a wild-eyed, mouth agape expression of bewilderment. Instead of portraying Snow White as an innocent princess transformed into a warrior, Stewart goes through the motions as one until she flips the switch and becomes the other. She is not a strong female so much as she is every other movie princess who just accidentally finds herself in a fight wearing armor and leading a band of very cooperative merry men.

For her part, Charlize Theron opts for an over-the-top villainess role where shouting is her de factor line delivery (think Gary Oldman-level of shouting, minus the gusto). Her Ravenna clearly has issues with aging, but it is only in one scene early in the film that the brilliant actress hints at a compelling character. Most of the time, however, the amazing actress downshifts her performance to be about at layered as the computer generated Eye of Sauron in Peter Jackson’s LOTR series. As her performance becomes more unhinged, her wardrobe becomes more eee-vil.

It is only Hemsworth’s grief-stricken, drunk Huntsman that keeps the movie afloat here, but not even Thor is a mighty enough Avenger to keep the weak plot plodding along. Speaking of Hemsworth, the romantic connection he has with Snow is too ambiguous to make much of an impact later on in the film when it matters. And the romantic triangle Snow has with him and Prince William (Sam Claflin) is such a crass grab at Stewart’s Twilight crowd and is dreadfully tired. The dwarves – played by Ian McShane, Johnny Harris, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost – are fun to watch but underused.

Snow White and the Huntsman is a weak fantasy where the largest quest seems to be to launch a female-driven magical franchise.