As critics we worry so much about plot structure, character development, contrivance, logic—that we sometimes forget that film is primarily a visual medium. When a great-looking film emerges, it’s often derided as style over substance. But it is undeniable that the new adventure, Snow White and the Huntsman, is one gorgeous piece of production design, art direction and cinematography. Eye candy of the highest order, the picture is awash is memorable images from first to last frame, a classy production of a revisionist fairy tale that almost has it all. Almost.
The story arc is the same—an evil queen usurps a young princess named Snow White of her kingdom. Been there, done it. But the telling of the story this time is gritty, feminist and, in the evil queen character, delivered in writ large melodrama that really works on the back of the great Charlize Theron.
Without doing a shot-by-shot analysis, it’s difficult to explain what really works about Snow White and the Huntsman, but it starts with an opening scene where a red rose petal falls onto an ivory snow blanket, and along the way contains such visual marvels as a living and breathing forest of danger, black crows that adorn the throne of the wicked queen, a gothic castle on a windswept crest near the sea’s edge, the queen herself emerging, wounded and aging, from a glorious petroleum-like muck, her demise imminent—these and many, many other original and lush sights compose this dark, haunting film.
If it sounds like I am over the moon about the look of Snow White and the Huntsman, perhaps I am—and why not, when the majority of today’s Hollywood pictures have no visual strategy, no memorable shots, limited use of widescreen frames and a general absence of artistry?
What I didn’t love quite as much was the story, which starts strongly with new queen Ravenna (Theron) butchering Snow White’s father and king, ascending to the throne. Snow White (Kristen Stewart) herself is banished to one of the castle’s prison towers, while Ravenna, obsessed with youth and beauty, carries out Draconian measures on the village’s young virgins, who feed her ravenous desire to be the fairest, natch. And yes, there’s a mirror as well, which melts down on command and shape shifts into a ghostly form to deliver the bad news—that only Snow White, perfect goodness herself, can destroy Ravenna’s dark magic and thereby cause her demise.
In the new tradition of the warrior princess archetype, Snow White Everdeen escapes the castle and seeks refuge in the disenchanted Dark Forest, filled with deathly manifestations—some real, some imagined. Her plan is to find her childhood mate, Prince William (bland Sam Claflin), himself banished years prior during Ravenna’s power play, leading the charge to take back the kingdom.
Upon the news of Snow White’s escape, Ravenna hires resident drunken local thug and Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to fetch Snow White from the forest and return her to the castle. The Huntsman, reeling from the untimely death of his wife, reluctantly agrees. You guessed it—shortly after encountering Snow White, the plot necessitates that he shift allegiance to the maiden-warrior so they can battle a very large troll.
As the two venture further from the castle, Ravenna dispatches her creepy brother and some central casting minions to retrieve the pair, who have hooked up with eight dwarves (yes, eight), played by an array of actors including Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones (none of whom are dwarves in real life, but rather CGI’d to become them here). And in case you’re wondering—a battle or two later, there are actually only seven dwarves.
The latter stretches of the film deal with Snow White coming into her own as an action heroine crusader, and they are, frankly, unconvincing in the hands of Stewart, who is a very internally-focused actress capable at conveying emotions bubbling below the surface, but highly ineffective when called upon to give a big, rally-the-troops speech. It’s an arch, uncomfortable monologue for the actress, who is out of her comfort zone and depth giving a commanding oratorical address.
Sensational Theron is in full-on vamp mode here with real venom in her veins, and after a strong set-up she disappears for some time, intermittently back in the picture during the midsection’s many forest shenanigans, which include a gorgeous scene of Snow White encountering a magical deer deep within a forest of fairies and another wherein Ravenna tricks Snow White with the apple, a feat of costume design if there ever was one.
Hemsworth, the capable star of Thor and The Cabin in the Woods, is quite good as the brawny brute that shows a heart beating under the armor as Snow White lays in deep slumber. As an actor, Hemsworth can do tough; he is also quite funny and self-aware, and his heroics here compensate for Stewart’s lack of conviction.