It is easy to be cynical or dismissive regarding the trend in Hollywood to take up beloved gems of the past – namely our childhoods – and adapt them to the big screen with all of the flare and clichés of a summer blockbuster. Yet, what happens when it actually ends up winning you over? There’s a moment in movies like “Snow White and the Huntsman” in which you realize you have let go of those prejudices and notions of incorruptible nostalgia and you’ve actually started to enjoy a new rendition of something old. It’s the directorial debut for the film’s helmer, Rupert Sanders; and to be honest he’s the star of the show. As shallow as it is to say, the visual effects and action overshadow most flaws with characters, acting, or uneven pacing. Not only because his directing ability is well done, but because any flaws with the movie are relatively minor.
The movie retells the familiar story of Snow White (Kristen Stewart), likely popularized by Disney’s adaptation for most of us. Yet, the film takes more influence from the original fairy tale with the additional focus on the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth). Snow White grows up in a kingdom under the rule of her wicked step-mother, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). The Queen is a narcissistic tyrant obsessed with preserving her physical beauty – at the behest of the entire land and its people. One day, the Queen’s mirror warns that Snow White is fairer than her which leads her to order Snow White’s death. Snow White escapes, and goes on an adventure to save herself and her kingdom with the help of the Huntsman, seven dwarves, and other fantastical allies.
The movie’s framework holds up fairly well. To be honest it was my biggest worry going into the movie – that its plot would break under bloating or simply feeling uninspired. Neither was the case, yet if it were to tip in one side or the other it definitely tips in the direction of a bloated plot. Some characters simply do not get the screentime they require, and with so many characters already it feels like some of them could have been taken out entirely without much effect. Trimming down of characters and irrelevant plot threads could have benefitted the movie greatly. It does, however, do a serviceable job establishing its own identity among fantasy epics. It’s refreshing to see a movie fully embrace two extremes – full-on hard fantasy and the more gritty, realistic and perhaps minimalist fantasy. It strikes a balance with both, so you will see great effects for trolls and fairies while still maintaining a gothic medieval feel. The plot moves forward at a mostly well-paced format, but unfortunately wavers here and there. Sometimes I wished the movie would linger on certain scenes longer – as it can help to have us dwell on great character moments or moments of visual beauty – an unfortunate side effect of a bloated script. While not a problem for the overall plot, the uneven pacing in some scenes can feel a bit rushed. Some questions in the plot went unanswered, but fortunately they aren’t important to the overall understanding of the story.
The only other major issue with the movie is acting. Kristen Stewart as Snow White was an odd choice. Not to say her performance is bad in this film, but it is awkward at points. In some moments she does very well but in others she seems uninspired. It is hard to see her as the titular character instead of just Kristen Stewart in those instances; and in those scenes it feels like she’s as much part of the audience as we are – just with more of a one-note “concerned” facial expression for every instance. While not a breaking element, it leaves more to be desired from her, especially in interactions with others. Chris Hemsworth was much more enjoyable as the Huntsman, and honestly I think his performance along with Theron’s far outbalance any flaws in Kristen Stewart’s acting. The chemistry between the two protagonists seems one sided, as Chris Hemsworth acts well on his side of the equation, but Stewart unfortunately does not reciprocate. Essentially this makes a potential major relationship fall flat. However, Theron completely inhibits the role as the evil Queen. While she may overact in some scenes, she does an excellent job playing a sinister, abusive, powerful and surprisingly tragic villain.
The highlight of the movie is definitely its visual design, cinematography, and action. The only downside in this area is that this movie will definitely remind you of other great movies from long ago. Obvious inspiration from “The Lord of the Rings” echoes while watching, as it even features the same faraway montage shots of the group traversing grand vistas. If you can get passed these obvious influences, it does establish a vibrant and inspired design. That is one of the greatest aspects of the movie – the fact that the director can do so much in a single scene to really draw you in. He does an excellent job using color and pattern contrasts to a striking and awesome effect. There are some great moments that have no action yet are just as enthralling to watch, something difficult to do with just visual style. A great use of color really brings out the themes of the movie – the grey monotones and gothic style bring out a sense of dread and annihilation throughout the Queen’s empire. She truly is a force of parasitism – entirely vampiric in the way she sucks the life out of the entire land around her. She is the embodiment of self-obsession with physical beauty – a force so vain and narcissistic that she acts as a black hole absorbing all beauty around her. Sanders plays this against the vibrant designs of the forest in which Snow White spends most of her time. Alive, colorful, and natural – she embodies natural beauty – and in doing so she seemingly commands nature itself.
Sanders’ directing ability really shines in scenes of action. Instead of lazy overuse of “shaky-cam” to get the effect, he balances it with just enough on-screen choreography so you get intensity without confusion. The movie is truly action packed with familiar medieval-esque battles throughout, but highlighted by truly amazing shots of action and use of fantastical effects. There were a couple instances of eye-rolling wonder at battlefield tactics, but that gets into too much of an area of nitpicking. The action really is one of the best aspects of the movie, and these scenes by themselves outweigh many already mentioned issues.
Overall, “Snow White and the Huntsman” has proven to be a great initial outing for director Rupert Sanders. There are some issues in the flick – namely some instances of uneven pacing and acting issues which leaves some potential to be desired. But even these seemingly huge issues are overshadowed by an excellent use of visual design, cinematography, and action. The plot may be merely serviceable overall, and the movie will remind you of great films long past; yet it still happens to triumph in its main goal – to retell the classic fairly tale of Snow White in the modern Blockbuster sense. In a summer packed with science fiction and superheroes, an entertaining fantasy movie fits in quite nicely.