Monday, June 04, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman / *** (PG-13)

Snow White: Kristen Stewart
Ravenna: Charlize Theron
The Huntsman: Chris Hemsworth
Finn: Sam Spruell
William: Sam Claflin
Beith: Ian McShane
Muir: Bob Hoskins
Gort: Ray Winstone
Nion: Nick Frost
Duir: Eddie Marsan
Coll: Toby Jones
Quert: Johnny Harris
Gus: Brian Gleeson

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Rupert Sanders. Written by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and brief sensuality).

As I was watching “Snow White and the Huntsman”, I couldn’t help thinking to myself about what a rich program of movies Hollywood set out for us this summer season. Sure there are the sequels and comic book fare that seem to make up the bulk of blockbuster output these days, but we’re also being served up a plethora of other genres, mixing of genres, old times revisited, and new takes on classic stories. “Snow White and the Huntsman” falls squarely under that last category.

At first, I questioned the value of turning what most of us recognize as a Disney type of fairytale into a Middle Earth-style fantasy. I felt more than a little strange asking for a ticket to “Snow White” at the box office. However, I was won over before long. I think it was the seven dwarves that tipped the scale; but most of this film’s success lies on the shoulders of Charlize Theron’s fierce performance as the wicked witch Ravenna, who has reasons of her own for becoming a force of evil.

That’s not to say this is one of those movies where the villain steals the lead from the hero, or heroine in the case of Snow White. While I’m not a fan of the “Twilight” movies, I think Kristen Stewart can make a strong heroine in the right role. Here she draws much of her strength from a more subtle place than Theron. Stewart’s Snow White builds to her strength. The actress and screenwriters remember that she has been locked away in a tower for most of her life. Leading people doesn’t come naturally to her. It takes death to push her to the edge she needs to become a sword and sorcery heroine.

Until she gets to that point she falls under the protection of several male characters. First there’s the Huntsman of the title. Chris Hemsworth continues to prove his worth as an action hero of the valiant caliber after his second outing as Thor in “The Avengers” last month. The boy from Snow White’s childhood, before her imprisonment, has grown into the expert archer William (Sam Claflin, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), who has infiltrated Ravenna’s search party to find the escaped Snow White. Leading the search is Ravenna’s creepy brother Finn (Sam Spruell, “The Hurt Locker”).

Perhaps I should give a little introduction to the story for those who aren’t familiar with the tale of Snow White. Snow White is the young princess of a kingdom when her father takes Ravenna as his second wife after the death of Snow White’s mother. Ravenna has designs on taking over the kingdom for herself. After she murders the king, she imprisons Snow White in the castle because her magical mirror advises her that Snow White is a threat. Once Snow White escapes she hires the Huntsman to find her in the Dark Forest. He quickly realizes he’s on the wrong side and helps White escape the forest. That’s when they come upon the dwarves.

The dwarves surprised me. They weren’t what I was expecting. I thought they might’ve been ejected from the story all together until they finally showed up at the midway point. I was surprised not to see real life dwarfs playing the mythical creatures. Instead they pulled out the call list for the top scruffy looking British character actors. Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson, and Eddie Marsan ground the dwarves in a reality akin to the visual work of the different species depicted in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I don’t know how well this sits in the performing dwarf community, but I liked their input.

First time director Rupert Sanders does a good job keeping the level of fantasy in the film at an even keel. He never goes too far into the fantasy realm, focusing as much on the humanity of the characters as he does on magic and monsters. His screenwriting team of first-timer Evan Daugherty and award-winners John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and Hossein Amini (“Drive”) work many fantasy elements into this world, making them seem as natural as the cars and highways of our modern world. I particularly liked the troll sequence. The special effects are as good as anything in “Lord of the Rings”.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” retains its classic feel. The filmmakers build upon their source material by giving their world weight and depth with an immersion of modern film effects to strengthen the reality of its fantasy elements and good character work to deepen characters that have traditionally been more archetypes than real people. It uses elements that have worked well in fantasy movies and popular sword and sandal epics, like “Gladiator”, to form a solid, adult oriented entertainment from its fairy tale source material. This is Snow White like you haven’t seen her before, and there’s no reason to be embarrassed to buy your ticket.

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