Saturday, June 9, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman: Keep Hunting

"Mirror... mirror............ onthewall," says Charlize Theron, pacing back and forth, when she first addresses her magic mirror in Snow White and the Huntsman. It's as though she knew she had to deliver the most iconic and necessary line in any Snow White movie, but didn't want to do it that way. You know, the way pretty much anyone would have said it. She tried to do it a different way, a dramatic and tense way. And it just kind of made me snort with stifled laughter. This is pretty much the pattern for the whole movie: it's like they're trying to do things their way, but something keeps getting in the way

I've promised myself I won't talk about Kristen Stewart in this review. She's been criticized enough by critics. I'll just say they're right on the money, and move on.

I will, though, criticize the character/writing of of Snow White. We're introduced to Snow White as having a special inner beauty and being amazingly kind and generous. When she's a little girl, she saves a magpie with a broken wing. This character trait is something we're reminded of a lot in dialogue, but we never really see again. She makes a doll for a little girl, but other than that, she spends most of the movie looking lost and confused. For someone who's supposed to be so headstrong, she spends a lot of time complaining about not knowing how to lead others and being told what to do by the male characters in the story. "Follow me." "Hide here." "Run away!" "Let's attack the castle." She really doesn't come up with any plans herself. She's not at all a strong female role model, which is what the film seems to think it's showing her as.

I didn't go to see Snow White for Snow. The reason I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman shows up about a half hour into the movie.

Here's that reason. His hair is this wet for the whole movie.

The Huntsman is the movie's real hero. When we first meet him, Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman (he has no other name in the movie, which gets kind of silly, considering he's a major character and he gets to know the other characters pretty well) is drunk and dirty and getting into a tavern brawl over money. He's drunk because his wife died, which reduced him to an alcoholic, down-and-out loser who somehow finds the time to keep himself ripped as hell. If you missed that his wife died, don't worry. It's repeated again throughout the movie as the sole piece of real character-building. Frankly, the character type is well-known, but Hemsworth plays it well, and it's a fun character to see.

Whether he's swaggering, joking around, or grim and angry, Chris Hemsworth does a fine job with the role he's given. The writing, though, lets him down.. For one thing, the characters never really talk to each other. When he addresses the seemingly dead Snow White after she eats the poisoned apple (if this is a spoiler to you....), he says something like, "I almost expect you to wake up and keep getting on my case." But she never really did get on his case before. His line suggests witty banter, but there isn't any. The two hardly even talk, other than to fill each other in about plot developments. Oh, and to mention that the Huntsman's wife is dead.

Small note: The Huntsman hits a lot of people with the top of his ax like he's thrusting with a sword. I don't know if someone designing the fighting choreography thought this looked cool, but I found it puzzling why you would want to hit someone with the non-bladed part of your weapon. That's like trying to cut someone with the edge of a spear. Also, I'm not an etymologist, but I'm fairly sure a huntsman is a hunter. So why does he carry so many axes and no actual, you know, hunting equipment? Another character is inexplicably amazing with a bow. Why doesn't the Huntsman ever even touch a bow? (Another definition suggested by my dictionary is that he's the master of the hunt and keeper of the dogs, but there's certainly none of that in this movie.)

I think this movie just didn't know what it wanted to be, or perhaps there were too many cooks around the development soup. Did it want to be an 'adult' fairytale? There's plenty of gruesome, evil magic, lots of suggested rape, and more tales of murder and revenge than you can shake an ax at. A village of women disfigures themselves because the queen only steals life from beautiful women (they're 'disfigured by small vertical scars on their cheeks). But then there's a long sequence in a magical fairyland (literally) called Sanctuary, where our heroes frolic with some woodland fairies and we're shown some rather cool visuals (a tortoise and a snake with plants growing on them, mushrooms with eyes, a flower with butterflies for petals). These scenes are complete with adorable fairy music. We're shown them, but Sanctuary has really no plot importance at all, other than to show that nature luuuurves Snow White. Because she's pure or something. I don't know what makes her so pure. She spends most of her time looking dazed or just kind of squinting hard at something. Gah! I promised myself I wouldn't talk about Kristen Stewart's performance. Moving on....

 Totally not talking about it.

The contradiction in tone can be best seen in the dwarves. The filmmakers couldn't decide if they were dangerous or funny. We first meet them as a band of ragged, rough highwaymen. One of them boldly says that he likes killing women and threatens to murder Snow White. But within a few minutes, we're chuckling over their goofy antics as they bicker over what to do next. Suddenly they're comic relief. Then bad things happen and they sing sad songs. Suddenly, they're serious again. Then they're wading through poo in a sewer and all hanging on the end of a rope to drag it down. Hi-larious. It's like the filmmakers just didn't know what they wanted. (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, and Nick Frost all appear as dwarves, and I think taking the comic-relief sidekick from Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and pairing him with the foul-mouthed murderous villain from Deadwood says something about the tonal choices here. I'm not saying an actor can't have range, but....)

Perhaps the film's biggest failing is that I just don't connect with any of the characters. The most interesting and complex is the villain. Perhaps the filmmakers so feared putting Snow White into a trope of pure maiden or butt-kicking girl hero that they decided not to give her a personality at all. But, at the end of the two-plus hour (ugh) film, I just didn't care about any of the characters. Even the Huntsman, the man I came to see, ends up without much to do once they escape the evil forest.

The forest, by the way, is a place everyone is terrified to go into, but which doesn't actually kill anyone. For one thing, when the Huntsman goes looking for Snow White, she has wandered into the forest perhaps two hundred feet and passed out from the dust of hallucinogenic mushrooms, so he finds her within five minutes of looking. So much for him earlier taunting the evil queen to kill him, because he'd rather die than go into that eeeeeeeevil forest. Later, as they're leaving, Snow White asks the Huntsman, "Is this the edge of the forest?" It's like she's saying, "What, that's it?" My thoughts exactly.

Charlize Theron tries hard to be wicked and sultry and complicated as the evil queen. This is perhaps the best role of the film. The queen even gets an interesting backstory. She was a little girl in a village where her mother placed a magic spell on her that would keep her beautiful and young, a spell that was woven by 'fairest blood' and can be undone by 'fairest blood.' She was given this blessing because her village was being slaughtered and she was about to be carried off to be the bride of a cruel king. Why her mother thought that making her eternally beautiful and young would be the best thing to do for a child about to be forced to marry the man who murdered her village is beyond me. Anyway, this gives her a hatred of men, and she sets out a world tour, marrying kings, murdering them, and taking over their kingdoms out of revenge.

What lets the role down is that the evil queen spends a lot of the movie shouting at people in a pointless rage. She shouts at her brother, she shouts at the Huntsman, she shouts at Snow White. This is supposed to be dramatic, but it comes across as hammy, reminiscent of also-Oscar winner Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons. I found myself snickering through some of it. There are really only so many times you can scream, "ARGH, you're all incompetent, bring me Snow White, ARGH" before you start sounding like every other fantasy villain ever yelling at every other fantasy lackey ever. For a film trying to set itself apart from the standard fairytale tropes, that's a bad path to take. You don't want your complex villain to invite comparisons with Cobra Commander and Doctor Claw. I can't remember if she called her henchmen "fools," but I wouldn't be surprised. (Pretty much every review I've read has praised Theron's performance, so perhaps I'm the only person who found fault with this. But I was honestly laughing at some of the most dramatic scenes because they got to be so over-the-top.)
I tried to find a picture of Charlize Theron yelling. This is as close as I could get.

The film had a lot going for it. Some of the designs are gorgeous. There's a CG troll that looks great, and the fairlyand is very creative and lush (though in the wrong movie). The evil queen goes through many costume changes, and some of them are visually stunning, as are the gruesome magical effects. When she's not yelling, the evil queen is sultry, chilly, and sinister in turns. There's also the potential for a love triangle between Snow White, the Huntsman, and her boyhood friend who is the son of a duke (I assume he's the handsome prince from the fairytale). Nothing really comes of it, though. But the tonal problems and the lapses into fantasy cliches hold this movie back, and the dialogue is the finishing blow.

What can I say about the dialogue? It ranges from passable to downright snicker-worthy. Snow White's big inspirational speech before they go assault her mother's castle is something about "iron will melt" and "will you be my brothers?" that sounds like the writer had heard a few inspirational speeches from other fantasy movies and decided to try to recreate them from memory. At one point, Snow White completely unironically says, "But no man can kill her!" And the crowning moment is her one-liner to the dying queen after their big confrontation, delivered straight-faced, the last bit of dialogue they exchange after the dramatic climax of the film: "You can't have my heart."

I could say the same to the movie.

1 comment:

  1. Just having seen the trailer, this is exactly what I expected the movie to be like.