Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Science fiction and fantasy media are often scathingly described as "escapist", meaning they are intended to take you away from your world, and by extension are generally lacking any "depth." I've argued before that painting the entire speculative fiction genre with such a broad stroke is inherently unfair, ignoring as it does the pieces in the genre that do have depth and complexity. I've also admitted that there is a lot of the genre that fits the classification of "escapist", but I don't think I've argued, at least in this blog, that there's anything wrong with the occasional escape. And I'd hasten to point out that calling something escapist doesn't necessarily mean that no art has been put into its creation. The movie Snow White and the Huntsman is a vibrant example of the amount of art that can go into something that is fobbed off as trivial, as escapist. Snow White is a stunningly beautiful movie, lovingly crafted and filled with technical expertise that transport the viewer with a sense of wonder not often encountered onscreen.

At first glance, Snow White would appear to be another in the ongoing process of modernizing fantasy, making it more realistic (read "dark"). But most Western fairy tales have roots in the Brothers Grimm, which as anyone who has actually read the source material can tell you were dark all on their own. Most of what we read and see today are sanitized versions of the original stories, and while I can't claim that Snow White goes back to the original story, it's obvious that the film's crew were aware of the darker elements of its origin.
And while this latest movie is darker than most film versions of the story, nonetheless it still provokes a sense of wonder form its viewer. The causes are many; take for example the arresting cinematography. Even though the kingdom is in disarray, it is a feast for the eyes, especially when Snow White visits the lands of fairy. When the White Hart appears before Snow White and her companions, my breath was literally taken away by its majesty and beauty. The score also plays a part in the how Snow White transports the viewer from our mundane world, evocative and beguiling all at once.

A lot of credit for the wonder of Snow White and the Huntsman should go to the costuming and makeup departments. The wardrobes are fairly typical except for those of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), whose clothes change with nearly every scene. Even when the evil Queen is pretending to be good, there are hints of her evil in the tiny details of her clothes, hinting at what lies beneath the veneer of civilization she shows to those she attempts to beguile. And when she is in full-blown evil mode, her costumes are intoxicating in their maleficence. And since Ravenna's power depends on taking the life force—the youth if you will—from young maidens, her age in the movie careens wildly between around 25 to the 70s, often in a single scene. Of course, given the subject matter, that same make-up department had to create seven dwarves, probably building on the groundbreaking work of The Lord of the Rings, but perfecting it. I will be amazed if Snow White is not nominated for awards for its costuming and make-up.

Then, of course, there is the acting. It's ironic that the two title characters actually do not carry the emotional load of the movie, but I'm not sure that it's really asked of them by the script. Kristen Stewart, as Snow White, is stalwart and dependable, but her acting range is not huge. Nor does it really need to be—she is as often acted upon by the forces that drive the movie as she is the actor. Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman is also adequate, rarely asked to give any other emotion than grief and anger at the loss of his family. The movie seems to expect there to be chemistry between the two of them, but it really doesn't happen. In one of the climaxes of the movie, as Snow White lays dead waiting for a kiss from her prince, Hemsworth does show some more range, but it is an exception rather than the rule.

No, acting kudos go to the "side" characters in this movie. First and foremost, Theron's Ravenna is malicious intention incarnate. Ravishingly beautiful and seductive when it suits her but torn by a tragic childhood into a stupefyingly corrupt and revenge-filled malefactor. Even when she plays the "good" queen, the evil flickers in Theron's eyes, hinting at what's to come. And when she goes bad, her rage is tremendous to behold. The oly perso she loves is her brother Finn (Sam Spruell), who is not as twisted as his sister, but fairly repugnant as well. They have the chemistry in the movie, even if it is a tortured one and generally one-sided. And of course, there are the dwarves, who are not allowed to dominate the film, as these name actors easily could—Ian McShane, Ray Winstoe, Bob Hoskins, and Nick Frost to name just half of them. When they are introduced they are delightful, not descending to comic relief but still with humor around them. They even have a back story that makes them somewhat tragic as well.

Snow White and the Huntsman follows the story that everyone knows fairly well, adding depth by adding details. Snow White is not just fighting for her own life in this version; instead Ravenna's magic and evil are corrupting the very kingdom, and Snow White must overcome her in order to restore it to its glory—that's part of the grimmer aspect of this modernization. Characters die, one particularly in overly telegraphed tug at the heart—but it's nothing graphic. And the movie clearly knows its own cinematic roots as well—it draws on a number of the best fantasy movies: Ladyhawke, Legend, and The Lord of the Rings. But despite its flaws, which can be overlooked fairly easily, Snow White does what those other movies do as well, help the viewer to escape into a world of magical possibility. And it does so convincingly and appealingly. I feel confident this is going to become one of those cult films that picks up a larger and larger audience as it is replayed on cable and as people rent and buy the movie. And while it is not great, it is quite good, worthy of repeated viewing and praise.

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