Review: Kristen Stewart battles Charlize Theron in surprising ‘Snow White’

The last time Joe Roth produced an updated take on a classic fantasy story, the result was the numbingly painful “Alice In Wonderland,” so when he announced an updated “Snow White,” complete with a transformation by the lead character into a sword-wielding warrior, it immediately set me on edge.  After all, if I had to bet on either Tim Burton or a first-time filmmaker named Rupert Sanders to deliver something worthwhile, I would have put my money on Burton.

And I would have been wrong.

The greatest thing “Snow White And The Huntsman” has going for it is that it treats its fairy tale story seriously, and it treats the world it takes place in with a sense of wonder.  While Rupert Sanders seems to be a very big fan of Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson, he manages to make this feel like its own thing.  It is still recognizably the Snow White story, but Evan Daughtery, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini’s screenplay expand the story in ways that feel like logical extensions of the text rather than radical reinventions.  The thing that surprised me most is that the film plays as dark as it does.  This is not a film for kids under 13 or so, and it is filled with nightmare imagery that many young viewers could be upset by.  Considering the almost insane levels of darkness in the original Grimm fairy tales, it’s appropriate.  I’m just not used to seeing fairy tales treated this way by mainstream Hollywood.

It’s interesting that this is going to end up head to head with Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” because the film this most reminds me of is Ridley Scott’s “Legend.”  Instead of Tim Curry strutting around wrapped in one of Rob Bottin’s greatest designs, we’ve got Charlize Theron strutting around wrapped in some of Colleen Atwood’s greatest designs.  Instead of newly-minted box-office star Tom Cruise, we’ve got newly-minted box-office star Chris Hemsworth.  And in both films, the lead actress is meant to represent innocence as icon, one Mia Sara, one Kristen Stewart.  And while I’m not sure I fully understand or believe the rules of either world, they sure are pretty to look at.

Theron is the best thing about the film, performance-wise, and she is more connected to the tone of the film than Kristen Stewart.  Theron gets that she’s playing something not quite human, and watching her glide through scenes, staring out at everyone else through heavy-lidded snake eyes, cranking it up for the moments where her human mask slips, you could be fooled into thinking the rest of the movie works as well as she does.  Her remarkably unhealthy relationship with her brother Finn (played by the visually upsetting Sam Spruell) is her only connection to anything vaguely human, and even then, one gets the feeling that Theron’s Ravenna has long since forgotten what it feels like to genuinely feel.  She is controlled by only one need, a constant drive to absorb youth in order to keep herself moving.  The scenes where she feeds or where she reveals the darker corners of her imagination are so extreme that it feels like they wanted to walk the line between PG-13 and R carefully.  I think Theron is disturbing because of how sensual she makes Ravenna’s connection to evil.  She seems to only come to life in those moments when she is doing something awful.

Especially after seeing how vibrant and interesting she was in “On The Road,” Stewart feels unfortunately stranded here.  It’s not really her fault, since there’s not a lot for her to play.  In the scenes where she does show signs of life, it feels like she’s off-script, because much of the film as written is just about her being reactive, being more of a symbol than an active participant.  She makes a fairly easy transition from life-long prisoner to sword-wielding badass, and it feels like there is some major connective material between her and The Huntsman (Hemsworth) missing.  They fall in love quickly, and while Hemsworth is good enough to suggest quite a bit of inner life, he’s filling in gaps in the script.  I don’t think they have amazing natural chemistry, but Hemsworth has something that Sam Worthington hasn’t been able to crack yet in his work on film, a soulfulness beneath the brawn, a suggestion of intellect above and beyond his animal cunning.  He handles himself naturally in the action scenes, but in the quiet moments, he’s equally adept at making even thin material work.

By far, the film’s strangest choice involves the dwarves, played by recognizable faces like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan, their heads covered in latex and wigs and then digitally grafted onto the bodies of actual dwarves.  It is exactly as freaky as it sounds like it would be, a very different solution than Peter Jackson used in the “Lord Of The Rings” films, and all it did was make me wonder if the dwarves they hired to be the body doubles felt insulted since I would guess they are all actors as well.  I like all the guys they’ve got playing dwarves here, but the effect is distracting.  Sam Claflin plays what would be the Prince Charming role in the typical fairy tale, but here he’s a childhood friend to Snow White who escaped with his father when Snow White’s father was killed and his kingdom usurped.  While he’s used well in a few action scenes, he feels like one dude too many, like the film doesn’t know what to do with him.  He’s part of the whole “rebellion against the Queen” storyline that only becomes significant in the final act of the film, and which basically just serves to add a lot of sound and fury around Snow White in the build-up to her final confrontation with Ravenna.

The film’s technical credits are sharp, and it benefits enormously from the cinematography by Greig Fraser, whose work the last few years on films like “Bright Star,” “Let Me In,” and Cronenberg’s “Spider” has made him one of the most striking guys working.  James Newton Howard’s score is very good, and the production design by Dominic Watkins and the costumes by Colleen Atwood all help make this fantasy world feel of a piece and well-realized.  Like “Legend,” this is a film that you could probably enjoy just as a piece of visual fantasy, ignoring the script issues.  

I remember when “Legend” came out, I went to see it with a friend.  Keep in mind, I’m talking about two fifteen-year-old nerds here.  We were both very excited to see the film, and while it was playing, I was quite taken by it as an experience.  But at the same time, I was keenly aware that the script just didn’t work, feeling like it had been translated into English by a slightly faulty computer.  When we walked out, I couldn’t resist, and I started to mercilessly mock the film’s script.  I didn’t realize how much he had enjoyed it, though, and he held it in for a few minutes before he started yelling at me to shut up, even going so far as throwing a half-hearted punch.    Looking back at it now, I can see how when you fall for an imperfect film, the last thing you want is for someone to immediately begin listing all the film’s flaws while you’re still basking in whatever it is you feel that the film did right.  

We all have films that we love in spite of certain elements, and I think “Snow White and the Huntsman” does enough right that the people who love it will love it through rose-colored glasses, while those who just don’t connect won’t be able to see past certain things.  If you like your fantasy dark, your characters broad, and your stories familiar, this lushly imagined riff on the classic fairy tale should scratch an itch you may not have even known you had.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” opens in the US this Friday.