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Movie Review: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN Piles on the Complications

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Director Rupert Sanders’ dark fantasy Snow White and the Huntsman comes armed with three screenwriters – Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini – and believe it or not, that comma-free, multiple “and’s” way of writing their names speaks volumes.  You might not know this, but according to the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the distinction between “and” versus “&” actually matters; “&” means that two or more writers worked together during script development, while “and” denotes separate involvement.  To wit, if I wrote “Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, & Hossein Amini,” that would be grammatically correct, but it would also imply that the three writers worked together.  In reality, each man came to Snow White alone, thus semi-confirming a suspicion I had watching the movie: that it is the result of combining three very different Snow White scripts into one entity.  The film just feels too segmented to be one cohesive project; the divisions stand out on screen.

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. A revisionist take on the legend, one that puts the Wicked Queen (here called Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron) at the center of the story.  She’s still the villain, but she’s a tragic one; all her life, men have possessed her, exploiting her beauty and sexuality until they decide to move on to a younger model, and when she finally acquires some real power, she turns it against the medieval period’s domineering, patrician society with a vengeance.  Her megalomania, her brutality, her vanity: they are still unforgiveable, but they spring from a place of abuse and psychological torment.
  2. 2. A jokey, action-centric romp.  The original story’s basic contours are there – the Queen wants Snow White (Kristen Stewart) dead for being the fairest in the land, so she hires an unruly huntsman (Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth) to take her out – save for one very 21st Century change.  The huntsman doesn’t just spare her life and then disappear from the story; he forms an unlikely alliance with Snow White, and the two flee through enchanted forests (are there any other kind in fairy tales?) and the like trying to escape the Queen’s henchmen.  It’s a classic Odd Couple pairing: he’s uncouth and boisterous (but secretly noble), she’s proper and demure (but secretly tough), and they bicker so much on the journey that you know the movie ends with them defeating the Queen and falling in love.  Think It Happened One Night meets Midnight Run (with Lord of the Rings‘ aesthetic trappings), and you’ll be on the right track.
  3. 3. Lord of the Rings with Snow White instead of Frodo.  This is the epic version of the tale, Snow White as war movie.  The Queen (Sauron?) has designs to rule the world, and only Snow White can unite the various tribes of Middle-Earth…erm, of Fairy Tale Land against the vicious despot.  The seven dwarves (played by a Murderer’s Row of British character actors that includes Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, and the great Bob Hoskins, all digitally and optically manipulated to look about three feet tall) factor into this iteration, except they don’t take advantage of Snow White’s cooking and cleaning skills: they are her Fellowship, offering sage advice and moral support as she prepares for battle.

Now, I don’t know who’s responsible for each of these drafts, and in a way, it doesn’t matter.   Daugherty, Hancock, and Amini came up with interesting and creatively viable narrative options; I’m partial to the first idea (I’m a sucker for mythic revisionism), but really, any one of them would have made a great movie.

The key word is one.  Sandwiched together, and the three are less satisfying, and that’s Snow White and the Huntsman‘s biggest problem.  The movie tries so hard to satisfy all three narrative objectives that it barely satisfies any of them, leaving only individual performances and Sanders’ striking visual eye to pick up the slack.  They can’t do it alone – remember: a movie has to be more than a collection of pretty parts – but when the end result is this dire, you hang on to anything you can get.

Sanders never lets any of Snow White‘s elements stick.  For about thirty minutes, we could be watching a storybook version of Young Adult, as Theron’s massively self-loathing and egotistical Queen stalks about her kingdom, and then the director transitions to the Adventures of Snow White and Her Hunky Huntsman.  The two banter and run, and just when we’re starting to get into a groove, the dwarves show up, complete with jarring mythic resonance that kick-starts the battle sequences.  The plot advances in lurches and starts, piling on more and more complications (the perverted schemes of the Queen’s brother, a clan of women who scar themselves to avoid the Queen’s wrath, a second love interest for Snow White in the form of Sam Clafin’s earnest nobleman) until a) we’ve forgotten what movie we came to see, and b) we no longer care about finding our way.

As such, it doesn’t matter that Theron delivers a performance of genuine subtlety and menace or that the effortlessly charming Mr. Hemsworth proves himself as winning here as he was in Cabin in the Woods or Thor.  It doesn’t matter how wondrous Sanders’ visual curlicues are; the way he conjures armies from black, shimmering glass warriors, the way he and his cinematographer (the great Greig Fraser) paint the Dark Forest with equal parts muck and magic.  It doesn’t even matter that Stewart barely registers as Snow White in either of her two forms: the warrior princess, the sensitive romantic lead.  She evaporates from your memory as soon as she leaves the screen, and so does the movie.  Next time around, maybe the studio should just pick one writer and stick with him.  To quote the Bard, “Tis in my memory lock’d/And you yourself shall keep the key of it.”  I don’t know what that means, but he meant it when he said it, and I mean this: Snow White and the Huntsman is a disappointment.

At least the Blu-ray looks good.  The HD transfer preserves the richness of Fraser’s compositions, and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track thunders along, alternating between vibrant action and subdued interiors.

Features are generally solid.  We get an extended cut (it runs four minutes longer than the theatrical version), a commentary with Sanders, visual effects supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, and co-editor Neil Smith, PiP and Second Screen viewing modes, a set tour, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes (“A New Legend is Born,” “Reinventing the Fairy Tale,” “Citizens of the Kingdom,” and “The Magic of Snow White and the Huntsman”).  There are also DVD and UV digital copies.

Despite having lovely cinematography and a number of spirited performances, Snow White and the Huntsman sags under the weight of its narrative ambitions.  If ever a movie needed streamlining, it would be this one.

The Snow White and the Huntsman Blu-ray streets on September 11th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.