14 June 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Somewhere in the middle of this film I found myself with a few tears flowing down my cheeks due to the lucious tableaux of small but sturdy folk encircling a funereal pyre in a mythic, magical, mystical forest, combined with the sound of a Capella singing of Celtic mourning hymns - I call them hymns because the tone took me to my Black Baptist church upbringing, when elderly women would break into spontaneous song. I suppose I can call the film its own sort of hymn since Snow White and the Huntsman completes the impossible task of being at once a spiritually engaging meditation on good versus evil and a wonderful summer adventure flick whose well known/worn concerns are here rendered as newly feminist and communal.

To explain further, this is not your mother's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In this version of events, we meet a spunky Snow whose greatest virtue is not her beauty - although that is noted by many - but her compassionate and warm heart. Whether taking in a bird whose wing needs mending, or accepting with grace and reserve the woman her father, the king, has decided to marry a year after the tragic death of her mother. Chalk this film up as another reminder of why I never yearn for "days of old" when death usually came with unknown cause, and with even greater frequency! But I digress.

Rupert Sanders reveals himself to be a filmmaker whose eye for visuals binds a seminal story like this one in a new but still understood fashion. Thus the drops of blood from Snow's mother's hand that hit the snow after she pricks her finger (on the rose bush that blooms mysteriously in winter) are as beautiful as the the scene itself - calling to mind the banked nature of winter filled with promise. Yet this moment that inspires her choice of name, when touched so earnestly by Sander's camera, calls up its own irony and sets Snow White among the Apples and Kal-El's of today's naming culture. If it wasn't iconic, how many of us would believe the name patently ridiculous? However, the current moment is called to mind when we consider characters.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, I mean, the Huntsman, shakes off some of his self-righteous fury and replaces it with drunken self-righteous fury. To wit, he does display greater depth than he had to as the demi-god forced to take holiday on Earth in Thor (2011). But I find myself still waiting to see what else he is capable of when not in period costume immersed in a character of such firmly rooted history. That said, as a widower in a land without hope for a future, his performance offers a stoic and at times touching grounding in the immediate presence of loss that would have been missing and missed otherwise.

As our modern Snow White, who is imprisoned for a decade and must lead an army against the evil queen to retake her throne, we have Kristen Stewart. Stewart does a far better job here at conveying emotional complexity and acting chops than in her more famous forays into werewolf/vampire love triangles, although that might not be saying much. I found myself surprised and curious if it was Chris Hemsworth's effective, if at times confused seeming turn as the titular Huntsman that drew out this performance from Stewart - who thankfully did none of the repetitive blinking that stands in for responsive emoting in the Twilight movies! (Not that I don't Love that pulpy gothic blather for its own quirks.) The two of them together, if not really giving off the sparks we are meant to feel between them, do give off the glow of comrades on a common mission and with the common goal of redemption and purpose.

Of course the One To Watch is Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravena, who oozes a deceit that requests no apologies - although a brief back-story is shoe-horned in for those who may feel need to understand her pain. Sanders' affection for the queen is clear when, as Stewart trudges through yet another dirty swamp in her tattered dress, Ravena slips from one delectable scene and outfit to the next. At one moment nude save her crown and completely covered in milk the consistency of Elmer's Glue, Theron's performance seems to show off the settings, giving them more depth, rather than the other way around. Colleen Atwood's gorgeous costumes - sure to earn her another well deserved nomination unless the Academy members are watching the film while inhaling some of that glue Ravena was drenched in, and get distracted - offer no shortage of eye candy.

But the film's strength lies in the movement from castle to forest where I doubted my eyes at first, and then thought the filmmakers had found little people who looked exactly like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. Only to discover some magical trickery was afoot as they were all simply made to appear small compared to Stewart and Hemsworth. The scenes Snow and the Huntsman spent around forest fires with the "seven dwarfs" could have devolved into hammy, cheesy mockery. But instead, even with limited exposition, the wonderful actors infuse their characters with a humanity that draws the audience in, and you care about them. Hence the scenes where they sing become less hokey repetitions of 'high-ho" and are instead immediately elegiac and bewitching.

In other words, like a hymn the scenes stir the soul through sound and sight, but possesses a message about the complexity of their relationship to each other and to what Snow represents. When the dwarfs give their allegiance to Snow as the rightful queen who can save the kingdom, and agree to follow her into battle, we're again reminded that we're not in Kansas, err, Disney anymore. As an antidote to the spate of silly fare directed at young girls, full of the concerns of boys and clothes, the film triumphs. Snow's princess is both innocent and tough, capable of carving a three inch trench from forehead to chin in the face of the lecherous brother of the queen, and bringing a thirty foot tall bridge Troll to a sweetly submissive state by the force of her good will alone.

And despite having the unfortunate designation of Evil Queen, Theron's Ravena is a woman full of the unyielding desire for her own way and the desire for a beauty that she knows (even in medieval times) can ensure one's comfort and success in life. Such commentary is often cloaked in fairy tales, whose moral imperitives were either shoved in or the story altered for them to fit. But here, they are revealed and then subverted by the fact that both women desire to rule, and the preference only goes to the one who seems to show greater care for folks in her kingdom.

In other words, although Ravena must answer for the evil she does, and she does engage in a lot of vile acts, her punishment feels less an argument that the purity of Snow is preferable to her evil than a suggestion that any woman who rules must needs combine her desire to rule with attention to crops and prosperity as well, or be drummed out by the locals! In this way, Snow's rule is the better since her view of the best kingdom possible is one wherein community and the good of all comes first. And because she doesn't regularly suck the very youth out of random neighborhood girls to keep herself young.

Community comes even before her own desires, as becomes clear towards the end. One could call it a cheap, cheesy attempt to cash in on the "love triangle" trope running rampant through films and books aimed at youngsters, but the "choice" between her childhood friend William - a forgettable and sad Sam Claflin who suffers from being unable to rescue Snow as a child, and showing up after the Hunk, I mean, the Huntsman - and the Huntsman is about the impossibility of a queen finding a man both suitable to the drawing room, the bedroom, and the battlefield, who won't one day try to take over her throne! Ravena too rules alone after murdering Snow's father, and both women evoke Cate Blanchet's Queen Catherine forced to rule alone if she would have her own will actually prevail.

Overall, the feminist depth I happily gleaned from the viewing was unnecessary to the group of small children and adolescents there with their parents and the greater crowd of old and young Harlem movie go-ers who, in typical New York City fashion, shouted at the screen "She showed that b#*ch what was up!" as Snow's good triumphed over evil, and laughed good naturedly at the shenanigans of the dwarfs letting in Snow's army by sneaking in the castle and opening the gates. A film that will entrance old and young with its beauty and offer young girls a nice alternative to being a vampire or werewolf's meal/plaything.


Genre - A-
  (as fairy tale action/adventure, its far better than most!)
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance - C+
  (some children of different hues and ethnicities at a remote village, otherwise, even magical lands are again for Whites only)
Visuals/Audio - A
Gender Rep - A+
   (for women re-framing what it means to be princess and in charge!)
Narrative - B+
Leaving Theater, Gut Said - B+/A


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