SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is one of those frustrating movies that you have to whip out the Scales of Quality on – while it’s beautifully shot, has some interesting characters and a fairly engaging story, it’s saddled with some epically bad performances and a shift in tone that makes it feel a little schizophrenic. At times SNOW WHITE plays straight out of the LORD OF THE RINGS wheelhouse (complete with helicopter shots of characters walking among mountaintops), and at others Ridley Scott’s LEGEND comes to the forefront. There’s even a sequence (the best sequence in the movie, admittedly) that if it wasn’t inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE, I’ll eat my hat. If you’re going to be “inspired,” be inspired from the best.
But the two anchor performances of the movie, Kristen Stewart’s and Charlize Theron’s, are rotten to the core. I’ve come to expect bland work from Stewart – she really only seems to shine when she’s in smaller roles – but Theron’s performance is spectacularly bad. At times I wanted to say to Theron, “Why are you yelling at me? I’m right here,” as she screams at damn near everyone in the movie. A more subtle, quietly malevolent performance would have worked wonders, which brings me to believe that this was more of a director’s choice than Theron’s, as she’s done great work before. Rupert Sanders, who cut his teeth on commercials, has a keen visual sense but a lousy take on actors.
The movie has a promising start – as narrated by Chris Hemsworth – the king of the land loses his wife, and he is inconsolable, raising young Snow White on his own. But when a mysterious obsidian-shard army invades, the king sends his forces into battle and rapidly defeats them. The king’s men find a mysterious, beautiful prisoner, and the king is so smitten with her that he marries her that very day. That night, the prisoner, Ravenna, brutally murders the king in her wedding bed and assumes the throne, and throws young Snow White into the dungeon. This all plays out with a dreamlike quality, ethereal and much like the fairy tale that inspired the movie.
Ravenna, through her Magic Mirror, discovers that the only way she can truly be immortal is to take Snow White’s heart. But Snow White manages to escape the dungeon and makes her way to the Dark Forest. To track her down, Ravenna dispatches her evil brother Finn (Sam Spruell) and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a drunken widower who knows the Dark Forest, to bring her back. The Huntsman finds Snow White and takes pity on her; he decides to help Snow White escape her pursuers. I'd talk about Prince William (Sam Claffin) but he's almost entirely forgettable.
The first half of the movie is ponderous and slow, and I was ready to write this movie off, regardless of the terrific cinematography, until the Dwarves showed up. Character actors like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, and Ray Winstone make up the Dwarves and through CGI trickery and stand-ins they’re all very convincing visually. They’re also given the best lines of dialogue and inject a much needed levity to the movie.
Rupert Sanders has a nice visual sense but a lousy dramatic one; why softly intone malice when you can scream your fool head off? I found myself wondering what it was like at dinner at the Wicked Queen’s house – “PASS THE SALT! HOOOOOOW WAS YOUUUUUR DAYYYYYY?!?!?” – and Stewart isn’t much better. She’s done wonderful performances before in smaller movies like ADVENTURELAND and THE RUNAWAYS, so I don’t understand why she loses the plot in these big-budget affairs. The movie almost works in spite of itself; again, the “Sanctuary” sequence, as nature comes alive (not dissimilar to how all the birds all flock to Snow White in the classic animated movie, actually) which is beautiful, striking, and very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s work on LEGEND and Hayao Miyazaki’s in PRINCESS MONONOKE (even down to the tiny fairies). But when we get to the climactic battle, it’s pretty much the same that we’ve seen in many fantasy movies before.
Universal Studios, with this and BATTLESHIP, is off to a rough start this summer. SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN has some good things going for it, but the plot and the acting practically sink it. Go for the cinematography, stay for the Dwarves.