Friday, June 1, 2012

Such promise. After Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror chose form over substance, we were hoping the dark take Snow White and the Huntsman offered on the age-old tale would be all it seduced us with in the previews.

Oscar winning stunner Charlize Theron as the wicked queen, Chris Hemsworth, the haughty hottie we love as Thor as the Huntsman, and Kristen Stewart bringing her mixed demeanor of demure ingénue and smoldering git-er-done, goth girl all presented in a nightmarish landscape… what’s not to love?

Lots. No question it out-designs Mirror Mirror, which is no small feat. The actors embrace their roles and are well up to their tasks, although handicapped with a flaccid script with many shortcomings, the most frustrating of which are the number of dangling plot points and lack of character development.

The production design and the special effects are a thing a beauty. Colleen Atwood, who is one busy little costume designing bee this year, has made some of her best costumes in the designs for the wicked queen. One example of which features tiny bird skulls sewn into her bodice.
The art directing team includes Andrew Ackland Snow (of the Harry Potter series) and David Warren (recently of Hugo and Sweeny Todd), and the visual feel of the film borrows the best from all three. They play with light, manipulate the color palette, and take such great care in the set decoration; note the later scene with the tableau of the wicked queen and the candles. The special effects are best used with the queen as well, when she turns into an “unkindness of ravens” or when she begs the mirror for affirmation as it melts then morphs into a hooded golden figure before her.

The queen is one of the best reasons to see the film. Charlize Theron is nothing if not committed. She plays her as a Hitchcock, blonde ice queen. Spectacular in her goth gowns, she is addicted to ageless beauty and the power she believes it wields. Instead of plastic surgery she resorts to sucking the youthful life out of pretty ingénue maidens, Dementor style.

When her wicked queen is first introduced, the audience will see great promise in her controlled fury, her hints of outrageous past abuse at the hands of men, and her heartless display of methodical vengeance (she kills her new husband on her wedding night). Alas, lack of character development reads alternately as introspective suffering (as if these men make her do this to them) and scenery chewing hissy fits where she screams at the top of her lungs.

We would better understand and be far more terrified if we knew a bit more of her back story, about which we only get hints in the form of a few meager flashbacks. That she is truly evil is no question, but we would all like to know a bit more as to why. Without that, all her impressive acting efforts are nearly for naught.

Kristen Stewart, competent actress that she is, has achieved success playing roles where her limited range from pouty passivity to pained resignation works to her and her various films’ advantage, but she has neither the broody innocence of a young Claire Danes nor the luminosity of Dakota Fanning (who was considered for the role). This range of hers does little to compensate for a script that clumsily attempts to re-imagine Snow White as a combination of Joan of Arc and Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.

We are given to understand that she is the foil of the Queen’s darkness, literally “life itself.” In several scenes, a monstrous creature and a mythical beast are drawn to her, the first leaving without further harm, the second coming to her aid. The audience just doesn’t get why. Where is her magic? Where is her inner glow that explains how she will guide her kingdom out of the Queen’s darkness?

The Huntsman and William, the duke’s son and Snow White’s childhood friend, (the stand in for the original story’s prince) are both drawn to her romantically, or so we are to believe, although there’s no real evidence of it. This “love triangle” barely amounts to anything, and leads to some of the most mystifying moments of the film, (which in the interest of avoiding spoilers I will leave for you to discover, and scream “Arghh!” at, as I did).

Chris Hemsworth is the film’s other great strength. Just off playing Thor in The Avengers, it is hard to determine from what we’ve seen whether he has anything more in him than a flamboyant god (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here, scruffily looking like Maharishi-era George Harrison or Johnny Depp on his day off, with his stringy hair and leathers, playing a drink-addled mourning husband with nothing to lose, Hemsworth shows he has quite a bit more range.

His character is the most developed, and therefore the audience grows to care most what happens to him. It really could have been his movie, had the film makers not been futilely attempting to hinge the whole thing on women’s superior power both for good and evil. (As if we all didn’t already know that…) It’s a pity the inexplicable plot devices later in the movie hobble him and confuse the audience. With this movie’s weaknesses, I was left thinking about poor Charlize and Chris. What a waste of so much effort, so much talent and so much pretty.

Deep into the movie, eight new characters are introduced, at first staring at Snow White and debating if they should just kill her. No, they aren’t your daddy Walt’s dwarfs. These hard drinking, hard partying guys are… what?! Some of England’s best character actors digitally made into little people. Ian McShane of Deadwood? Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones? Great actors all. We would have loved to see more of them, and had them add a bit more levity to what is a deadly serious affair in need of some lightness.

There are many directors that have made a lasting contribution who started out in commercials, Ridley Scott and David Fincher for example. Still, Snow White and the Huntsman seems an awfully big bite to chew as a first time feature for Rupert Sanders.

The biggest disappointment is its mediocrity, as it could have been the ultimate dark retelling of the classic fairy tale. Go if you must, I know nothing could have kept me away, to my disappointment. It isn’t awful, but it could have been so much more, and that’s always the tragedy of it.

Although it’s poisoned apples and oranges, you could always skip it and visit the far more charming world of Moonrise Kingdom. Now that’s a land of enchantment well worth your time, and a movie well worth your money.


Alternate Indie: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s latest and best effort stars two newcomers as young lovers running away together who must be found before a historic storm reaches landfall on the isolated island that is their 1965 home. Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are all players in the ensemble cast of this wonderful, quirky, coming-of-age charmer about love, risk and acceptance. While I’ve never been a Wes Anderson fan (director of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Bottle Rocket), his last film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, seemed to be a portent of great things on the horizon.

The production design of Moonrise Kingdom celebrates the mid-60s colors with a palette that recalls old family photos, and the bizarre, utterly believable script and dialogue celebrate that painful beautiful first love, how it seemed to mean the beginning and the end of the world all at the same time. The two teenaged leads are spectacular. If you like a great coming-of-age movie, do yourself a favor and see this one. Although altogether different in tone and subject matter, it is coming to theaters in wide release this weekend, and it’s a darn sight better than Snow White and the Huntsman.