‘Snow White and Huntsman’ dwarfs own dark potential

Darker 'Snow White' doesn't deliver

Jason Fraley | November 14, 2014 7:50 am

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Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON – This year marks the 75th anniversary of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), and with it, comes two revisionist updates.

A few months ago, we saw Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in the light comedy “Mirror Mirror.”

Now, Hollywood goes to the dark side with “Snow White and the Huntsman,” following the evil queen Ravenna’s (Charlize Theron) plot to remain the fairest in the land by sending a Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to kill young Snow White (Kristen Stewart). You should know up front, this one isn’t for the kids.

The premise of a grim Grimm fairytale had promise. But while “Mirror Mirror” didn’t take itself seriously enough, “Huntsman” takes itself a little too seriously, without the script to back it up.

First-time feature filmmaker Rupert Sanders, a former director of TV commercials, pairs with first-time feature screenwriter Evan Daughtery, and the two get lost in their own creation. Co-writers Hossein Amini (“Drive”) and John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) were brought in to punch up the script, but not even they can save it, providing the random shock value of “Drive” without the daring of its director, and the pandering of “The Blind Side,” without the heart of its “true story.”

The script meanders along for way too long without narrative focus. Whose perspective are we supposed to follow? Ravenna? Snow White? The Huntsman? Prince William? The question becomes not who is the fairest one of all, but whose central story should we care about?

Is it Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”), who won the role of Snow White over “Mirror Mirror” star Lily Collins? Stewart shows toughness, giving Hemsworth a black eye and tearing a thumb ligament on set, but she’s ill-equipped to carry the film as an actress. She is given very few lines, and her “rousing” speech to rally the troops would make William Wallace cover his face with his kilt.

Is it Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”), who actually reminds me a bit of Mel Gibson as The Huntsman? He got the role after Hugh Jackman and Viggo Mortensen declined, and his performance is solid. If only the script gave him more time to develop and explore his widower backstory. He’s given about as much face time as the Huntsman on the Republican debate stage.

Or is it Charlize Theron, who beat out Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder for the role of the evil queen Ravenna? The film is at its best when focusing on her story, complete with creamy, slow motion bathtub dips. At times she is wickedly sexy, donning a black-winged collar and tapping silver finger claws; at other times, she channels her Oscar-winning “Monster,” making us wonder how someone so pretty can be made to look so ugly. Her aging queen, scorned by past lovers and hell-bent on immortality, is a fascinating feminist, but there’s a little too much shouting for shouting’s sake.

The blame for the over-the-top screams are less on Theron and more on Sanders as director. He should go back and watch the quiet, restrained cruelty that Milos Forman got out of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) or that John Frankenheimer got out of Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). Jolie should take notes as she tackles the horny “Sleeping Beauty” villain in “Maleficent” (2014).

Sometimes less is more.

That is, unless, you are the dwarfs, who aren’t played by actual little people, but rather tall actors shrunk down digitally. Note to Hollywood: just because Bob Hoskins was surrounded by marvelous effects in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) doesn’t mean he deserves to be shrunk down digitally.

Further demoting the dwarfs is the script’s choice to make them minor characters, whereas the Disney version made them prime players. It’s just one of many questionable script choices, including the placement of Snow White’s poison apple demise. After seeing both possibilities, I’m convinced the mourning of Snow White’s death works better after the demise of the Queen, rather than before a final assault on the castle. I thought the film was building toward a “Lord of the Rings: Two Towers” climax, but Ravenna’s forces hardly put up a fight.

In a way, it seems the filmmakers were going for the sensory splendor of “Lord of the Rings,” with helicopter shots of mountainsides set to an epic score by eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard (“The Fugitive,” “The Sixth Sense). The movie looks as great as it sounds, with cinematography by Greg Fraser (“Let Me In”), production design by Dominic Watkins (“The Bourne Supremacy”) and costume design by three-time Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Chicago”). The special effects department deserves some major kudos with new visual wonders at every turn, from aging faces, to snake-covered tree branches; from adorable fairy creatures, to a cool “liquid metal” Magic Mirror that sounds like Darth Vader.

But sensory splendor should enhance the script; not mask its flaws. The film’s imaginative fantasy elements feel like “much ado about nothing” against such undisciplined writing. The choices are frustratingly random, from a white horse conveniently waiting for Snow White on the beach, to a unicorn-elk creature coming out of nowhere to crown her “the chosen one.” I heard the audience laughing at too many moments I suspect weren’t meant to be laughed at.

I had high hopes for this one as a summer blockbuster that actually had some teeth. I was along for the ride in Act One, but mid-way through, I kept wanting someone to feed me a poison apple and wake me up when the movie was over.

★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

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