<i>Snow White and the Huntsman</i>: The Fairest of Them All

Every summer there's that wild card big-budget studio picture that catches you off guard by being better than you could have predicted. Last year, that film was the Hail Mary franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which made up for the terrible performances of its human cast with a compelling simian hero (Andy Serkis's Caesar) and some entertaining ape-driven action sequences. And while 2012's summer movie season is just getting started, Snow White and the Huntsman is the current favorite to be its most unexpected surprise. That's not to say it's perfect, by the way; first-time director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Evan Draugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini make a number of major and minor mistakes in the process of bringing the age-old fairy tale back to the big screen. But the movie ultimately gets more right than wrong, finding the proper balance between spectacle and storytelling -- a trick that certain other recent blockbusters (looking at you Men in Black 3 and Battleship) failed to achieve.

As you may or may not remember, Snow White and the Huntsman is actually the second Snow White-themed feature to arrive in theaters this year. Back in March, the Tarsem Singh-directed Mirror Mirror opened with a thud, both due to its release date (one week after The Hunger Games decimated all other movies in its path) and its general ridiculousness. Part of that film's downfall had to do with its forced attempts at comedy; a sense of humor is always welcome in fairy tale spectacles, but when it falls flat (as it did in Mirror Mirror) the results are often painful to watch. Huntsman runs in the opposite direction -- almost too far at times, truth be told -- offering up a serious and sober-minded interpretation of the story of the virtuous princess Snow White and the Evil Queen that tries to destroy her for her youth and beauty. Those roles are assumed by Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, respectively, with Chris Hemsworth swinging the axe of the titular Huntsman who is tasked by the queen with finding and killing her younger, prettier rival.

While the trio of screenwriters have obviously embellished the original tale to pad out the movie's plus-sized 124-minute runtime, the overarching narrative mostly follows the version of events that the Brothers Grimm preserved for posterity in the 19th century. Once again, young Snow is born to the loving king and queen of a mystical medieval land only to have her mother die not long after. Her father subsequently marries a new woman, here named Ravenna, who turns out to be a literal witch, complete with a magic mirror, an army of obsidian-glass soldiers, age and pain-defying spells and the ability to dissolve her human form into a flock of ravens (hence the name, Ravenna). After killing the king and seizing his throne, she locks his daughter away in a cramped cell where the girl resides for years and years while her once-great kingdom falls to pieces.

Having by now flowered from a young girl into a young woman, Snow finally escapes her captors and flees into the nearby forest with the Huntsman on her heels. He captures her handily, but then makes a spontaneous decision to switch sides, defying Ravenna's orders by escorting her deeper into the woods (and not, as in the story, cooking a boar's lungs and liver to feed to the Queen in place of Snow's vital organs) where they come across seven dwarfs, none of whom are given cute names in this interpretation, but they are played by some pretty terrific actors -- among them Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan and Bob Hoskins. Other familiar elements crop up as well, including a poisoned apple, a Prince Charming (embodied here by Sam Claflin's William, the son of a duke and a childhood friend of Snow's) and a resurrection-by-kiss before the stage is set for the movie's primary departure from the text: a large-scale "Have fun storming the castle!" set-piece where Snow leads an army of knights to reclaim her crown from the usurper.

As a feature film debut, Snow White and the Huntsman doesn't exactly herald the arrival of a visionary new director. Sanders has no qualms about cribbing from a variety of sources, most notably HBO's Game of Thrones, but also Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and Shekhar Kapur, whose 2007 film Elizabeth: The Golden Age ends with a battle sequence featuring star Cate Blanchett dressed up in knight's armor that looks like a trial run for this movie. Unlike a lot of overeager first time directors though, Sanders thankfully doesn't drown the movie in showy stylistic flourish and elaborate special effects to prove his blockbuster bonafides. Instead, he parcels out the wow-factor F/X moments (this version of the Evil Queen's mirror is particularly memorable) and grounds them amidst top-notch production and costume design. Indeed, one of the film's chief pleasures is how much obvious effort has gone into making its world believable; even the occasional bursts of magic enhance rather than ruin its sense of realism. One of the only times that the movie threatens to lose its way in this regard is when the dwarfs lead Snow and the Huntsman into a sanctuary populated by adorable flitting fairies, adorable woodland creatures and a noble, godly stag that acts an awful lot like Narnia's Aslan. It's an ill-advised detour into a Disney-esque fantasyland that could have (and should have) been dispensed with altogether.

Another extraneous story thread that could easily have been snipped involves the character of William, who seems primarily to be on hand to act as a more age-appropriate romantic partner for Snow lest audiences feel somewhat icky about rooting for her to hook up with the strapping older Huntsman. (Granted, there's only a seven-year age gap separating Stewart from Hemsworth, but that beard and his world-weary expression -- not to mention a dead-wife backstory -- widens that gap up to a good fifteen years.) Make no mistake though: the Huntsman is quite clearly the... uh, apple of Snow's eye throughout the movie, which reduces William to a narrative dead end. Jettisoning him entirely would have streamlined the narrative and allowed the writers to more fully explore the provocative complexity of the relationship between Snow and her protector. Both the script and the actors are taking obvious steps in that direction anyway (there's certainly a way to read this movie as the story of Snow's entry into womanhood and all that that entails, with the Huntsman representing alternately her absent father and her platonic ideal of a romantic partner), but the movie itself backs away from crossing that particular bridge, a choice that winds up harming Hemsworth's performance in particular as he's got to reign in his charisma to ensure that William seems like a viable alternative rather than dead weight.

Then again, it's probably appropriate that the most compelling relationship in this movie -- as it is in the Snow White legend -- isn't the one between Snow and the Huntsman, it's the one between Snow and the Queen. In the run-up to the movie's release, many jokes have been cracked about incongruity of Charlize Theron somehow feeling less attractive than Kristen Stewart, but within the context of the movie it's made quite clear that "beauty" in this case doesn't refer to physical appearance as much as it does purity of heart and strength of conviction. (Besides, while she may not be as stunning as Theron, Stewart still has a striking face that the camera loves.) It's the age-old battle of good vs. evil, light vs. dark and both actresses embody those diametrically opposed positions quite well. Theron is clearly having a ball going full-on evil (although it must be said that, for all her cruelty, Ravenna is still less of a nightmare than the twisted teen fiction author that Theron played so memorably in last year's Young Adult) and Stewart seems relieved at being able to play a more dynamic heroine than that drab stick-in-the-mud Bella. In many respects, those damn Twilight movies were the worst things to happen to her career because while they've substantially increased her box office profile and earning power, the acting cred she built up via strong performances in movies like Into the Wild, Undertow and Adventureland has taken a severe hit. Stewart's performance as Snow doesn't completely recapture the promise shown in those earlier films, but it does hint at a brighter future for her once Breaking Dawn Part 2 brings the The Twilight Saga to its overdue end. That Stewart has the gravitas to carry her own star vehicle is another pleasant surprise in the summer's most surprisingly entertaining blockbuster so far.

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