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Starring: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Ciaflin, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini
Director: Rupert Sanders
Setting aside the controversy of the Stewart/Sanders affair, and the protest by the Little People of America over the use of famous normal-sized actors faces digitally applied to little people, is this darker take on the Snow White fable any good?
I watched this one with my daughter. We laughed when I told her a coworker had described the film to me as a “chick flick,” which perhaps in this guy’s mind meant any film with a strong female lead. I don’t know, but it’s not what most people would think of as a chick flick. The film follows the basic blueprint of the story we know, with a number of changes and embellishments. Snow White (Stewart) is no peasant girl needing a prince to become a princess. She was a princess in the first place, imprisoned when her father takes a new bride, Ravenna (Theron), who betrays and kills the king and takes the throne.
Ravenna is a feminist of a sort, driven to evil by the way men can subjugate and use women. The writers have the makings of an interesting, even sympathetic take on the character, but while director Sanders seems to want viewers to see Ravenna as complex—showing some time times for her as a little girl, and she is loyal to her brother Finn, to an extent—the fact remains that Ravenna is motivated only by anger and vanity. She not only doesn’t do anything good for the women in the village, she does quite the opposite, magically draining them of energy in order to keep her youthful and beautiful. And what of this vanity, anyway? Why worry about who the fairest one in the land is? She’s not trying to physically appeal to anyone.
When Snow escapes through a sewage duct that dumps out into the sea (there may be a metaphor here but I’m not that interested; rest assured Kristen Stewart is never in liquid that remotely looks like it has poop in it), Ravenna sends grieving widower Erik the Huntsman (Hemsworth, who followed Thor and The Avengers and is well cast here as a guy who can swing an ancient weapon around) to track her down in the Dark Forest. Of course, he likes her, so there’s not even a question that he’s going to bring her in. Instead, he takes her first to his village, which is destroyed by Finn’s soldiers, then deeper into the forest, where they find the Dwarves. It was a good idea not to make any of them obviously Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy, etc., though on the other hand, it’s a waste of some fine actors, with Jones, McShane and Winstone phoning it in, Frost charming, and Hoskins as the wise one of the group, though it’s a bittersweet performance in light of the recent news about his Parkinson’s disease, especially as he sounds frail here.
Shoehorned into the growing team of rebels is William (Ciaflin), prince of a neighboring kingdom who loved her as a child and thought she was dead rather than imprisoned. There is only the faintest attempt at a love triangle here, partly the fault of the script and Sanders, partly because Ciaflin lacks Hemsworth’s charisma.
It should be said that one of the best things about the film is the visual imagination on display, from the black glass soldiers serving Ravenna to all her costumes to the wonderful fairy part of the forest, with its moss-covered serpents and mythical white stag. It reminded me a bit of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a film spilling over with fascinating creatures but with some story problems. The golden mirror turning into a kind of liquid gold figure was cool, too. Then there’s the very good original Florence + the Machine song, “Breath of Life,” further evidence of some good thinking and good money going in the right places. Theron isn’t campy at all as Ravenna, really investing the character with fire. You can tell that in her mind, Ravenna has a huge backstory and is deserving of some pity. In fact, at one point Snow White says she feels sorry for her. Stewart is pretty good, too; she is usually a sullen actress, so she has her work cut out for her playing not just a young woman of destiny but one whose light inspires others. She acquits herself fine, and say what you will about Sanders the person, as a director he does give her every opportunity to shine.
But good visuals and performances don’t make a good film. The story and editing have to be there. I’m sure that spending time on unrewarding subplots like William’s love for Snow, or Ravenna’s backstory, didn’t help, but mostly, it seems like Sanders lacks a gift for pacing. It seems like a serviceable script on paper, but he isn’t able to elevate it beyond that, and unlike a director like Michael Bay, Sanders doesn’t try to overcome his limitations with massive volume and spectacle. To his credit, most of the effects-laden scenes are serving the story, but also, most of the scenes just kind of lumber along. The kingdom and its people, Snow White’s life—none of these things really feel like they’re at stake. Snow and her band of merry men eventually get around to taking the castle when they feel like it, and Ravenna goes down pretty easily. Just trimming some of these scenes for a brisker pace would probably have improved it. It would make a hell of a Art of book, so one can appreciate the visuals, but as a film it’s kind of boring.