This is no fairy tale.
You know, you’re hanging around at the bus stop waiting for the latest teen adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to turn up and, whaddya know, two come along at the same time. Mirror Mirror: the Untold Story of Snow White, the latest offering from Tarsem Singh, the director behind The Cell and Immortals, hit theatres just before Snow White and the Huntsman. Where Mirror Mirror aimed broadly in a still-suitably-for-kids PG fashion, intending to get by more on style than substance, Snow White and the Huntsman celebrated its more mature ratings (12A in the UK and PG-13 in the US), attempting to appeal to the more lucrative teen Twilight / Hunger Games audience, not least with its casting of Twilight’s Kristen Stewart in the lead role. There was a time when no Studio would risk going toe-to-toe with a similarly-themed Julia Roberts film at the Box Office. Those days are gone.
Bristling with energy and style, Snow White and the Huntsman is the latest ‘dark’ adaptation of a classic fairytale to hit the screens following the abysmal Red Riding Hood. Clearly struggling to find new material – and running short of popular franchises, old classics and foreign films to remake and reboot – someone, somewhere in Hollywood must have decided it was a good idea to take some stories best remembered as classic Disney cartoons and rework them for modern teen audiences. In several ways Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds where many have failed, certainly providing a novel reimagining of the classic tale, some interesting characterisations, and more than a few impressive set-pieces to make up for one major casting mistake (exacerbated by that notoriously public faux pas) and some slight pacing issues (noticeable even more on the Extended Edition). Likely to appeal to the same people who were more forgiving about The Hunger Games, this isn’t quite Snow White for the Twilightgeneration, but it’s certainly closer to that than Snow White for the Lord of the Ringsgeneration – which is probably what they were hoping for. Still, if you’re feeling reasonably forgiving, and are prepared to be open-minded about watching ‘a(nother) Snow White movie’, then hopefully you’ll find this a fairly decent watch... and maybe even a fresh and rewarding one.
After the dark sorceress Ravenna takes the throne as Queen of the city of Tabor, the surrounding land withers and dies; her seemingly immortal beauty fuelled by consuming the youth of all the maidens she finds. For years she has held within her tower Snow White, the rightful heir to the throne, assuming that the young Princess would be a good bargaining tool should the need ever arise. One day, however, her trusty mirror – itself enchanted by dark magic – tells her that she is no longer ‘the fairest of them all’ and that there is indeed another who is more beautiful: Snow White. Discovering that, through Snow White, she may find the key to permanent immortality, she sets about to kill the girl but, just as she plans to do so, the young Princess escapes and slips away into the cursed dark forest. Unable to follow her because her powers do not work within the forest, the evil Queen contracts a man familiar with the cursed land to go and retrieve her: the huntsman.
Debut director Rupert Sanders will unfortunately likely become more famous for being the married man who had an affair with his 20-years-younger leading lady, Kristen Stewart, whilst she was in a long-term relationship with Twilight co-cultist Robert Pattinson, than he will be for hitting a home-run with his first film. Undoubtedly flawed around the edges, Snow White and the Huntsman is still a remarkably entertaining blockbuster fantasy adventure, a solid enough ‘win’ in Universal’s books to warrant Sanders’s return on the inevitable sequel, were it not for his rather public indiscretions.
It’s really quite surprising that they threw $170 million at a first-time director to make this ‘dark’ fairytale a hit – someone, somewhere must have decided that it was worth the gamble. Or perhaps it just boiled down to cashing in on the Twilight audience; Kristen Stewart’s fans alone would probably be more than enough to turn a profit, and maybe the producers were savvy enough to know that it wasn’t such a gamble.
Credit to Sanders, though, he wasn’t prepared to leave this as nothing more than a shallow star vehicle, instead investing time and effort into crafting a fairly well-rounded universe, with a nicely innovative interpretation of the classic tale, and featuring some interesting characterisations therein. Clocking in at well over two hours in length – even longer in its Extended Edition – Snow White and the Huntsman almost warrants being labelled as ‘epic’, but falls short of such accolade; after all, there’s only so much a debut director can do with this kind of material.
Those who know the classic tale will find a warm familiarity in the events recounted here, but will be pleased by the unusual manner in which they are regaled. From the prick of the rose to the bite of the apple – the milestones are all here, but they are all cleverly integrated into the plot and brilliantly realised, often with a visual style and flourish that will only further draw you into the fantastical piece.
In this regard the characters themselves have been brilliantly re-conceived, and each one of them given that extra layer which grounds their more familiar fairytale actions with a sense of plausible justification. From the evil Queen to each one of the seven dwarves; from the huntsman to even the famous magic mirror itself – here given an edge that you might find brings on Macbeth parallels; preying on the Queen’s mind with the same twisted logic as the notorious three witches from Shakespeare’s own dark tale.
Chris Hemsworth stands out as one of the absolute best things about this piece, bringing us yet another affable, genuine and utterly charismatic lead performance which, alongside Thor, will likely prove to be worthy of a franchise. Hemsworth’s huntsman is a widower, drowning his sorrows and getting into bar-fights largely because he no longer cares for his life – he wants only to be reunited with his lost love. His motivation for hunting Snow White is cleverly plotted, only adding further dimension to the characterisation where there simply was none before. Between this, Thor, The Cabin in the Woods and, hopefully, the upcoming and long-delayed Red Dawn remake, this man has a bright future ahead of him. Whether or not he can go that extra mile for more challenging roles is yet to be determined, but, at the moment, he’s failed to disappoint. Indeed if the rumours are true, and they do actually eschew a direct sequel in favour of a spin-off centred on his character of the huntsman, then maybe that would not be such a bad thing at all.
The dwarves, whilst given nowhere near as much screen-time – they come into the piece halfway into the proceedings – are the standout cameo roles within the film. Much as I would have loved to left the discovery of these characters as a surprise for those who will watch the film, it’s an important selling-point for those yet undecided. Using the kind of clever, seamless effects that made McKellen’s Gandalf so much taller than the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, here we get a series of extremely familiar faces bringing the famous seven dwarves to life in a way that most viewers could have never imagined, or hoped for.
An assortment of Brit talent will shock you with their transformations into tiny tough people: Ian McShane (Deadwood), Ray Winstone (The Sweeney,Tracker), and Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa) provide the weight, whilst Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Hunger Games), Eddie Marsen (Tyrannosaur, Mission: Impossible III) and Nick Frost (Paul, Attack the Block, Shaun of the Dead) offer up some more lightweight shenanigans, all tonally in-line with the rest of the proceedings of course. Yes, you read that right, Winstone, McKellen and Hoskins – familiar for playing Brit gangland tough-guys – here miniaturised as dwarves. It’s excellent casting; they all look so very different (particularly Winstone with his wacky Mohican) and yet so undeniably familiar. Perhaps it was actually a clever idea to introduce them relatively late into the proceedings, because it gives the movie that very-much-needed extra spark to help you stay hooked onto this story.
Charlize Theron is also a great evil Queen, making the most of another one of the better-developed fairytale characters in this tale. Normally the kind of role that would require nothing more than snarling and snapping like a demented viper, with no overt justification for the character being quite so evil, here the Queen is given quite a sympathetic backdrop, and a fair amount of thought has been put into the reasoning behind her actions and, in particular, her hatred towards men. This kind of radical fascist-feminist approach is remarkably effective because her actions – however extreme – are actually founded in elements that men will be familiar with and women will empathise with. Slighted by her one true love after her beauty faded and the man was drawn to another, younger, prettier girl, the Queen now despises all mankind for their fickle attitude towards the female of the species. Theron’s brilliant in the role, capitalising on the more cold-hearted characterisation that she brought forth in Prometheus, and falling down here only when called upon to shout and scream far too dramatically for the proceedings. It’s the one let-down in what is an otherwise a well fleshed-out villain.
There are a couple of lighter, less substantial performances that round out this piece but one that should have been more significant was Sam Claflin, who plays Snow White’s childhood sweetheart, William. Claflin isn’t really known for much – although he’ll play an important part of the upcoming Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire – and here he certainly doesn’t make his mark, other than, perhaps, in the fun he has with a bow and arrow. Slightly less irritating than the one-note wonder that is Orlando Bloom, Claflin’s William is a similar sort of Legolas archer, although here he is supposed to be more than just an excellent shot – he’s supposed to be the third corner to the central love triangle.
“Love triangle?” I hear you ask, incredulously. Yes, at the heart of this fairytale is a love triangle, only one that is so insubstantially realised that you wouldn’t notice it was even there if the characters didn’t talk about it so openly. It’s something that could have easily been shelved entirely – and perhaps that may have once been the plan, as it is certainly not fully explored in this chapter – but since love triangles are becoming a common staple for these kinds of stories (everything from Twilight to Red Riding to Hunger Games), I guess that Snow White and the Huntsman had to follow suit.
Hemsworth would probably have chemistry with a dead fish, and Claflin plays a character who is simply too underdeveloped to be credible romantic competition, but really the biggest problem with the romance in this piece – and actually the biggest flaw in the entire movie – is the casting of Kristen Stewart. Stewart is no newcomer to love triangles in films (nor love triangles in real life) and yet she is utterly unconvincing here. Perhaps she was too distracted by her real-life dalliances with the director; perhaps the director was too distracted to offer her enough constructive criticism – or perhaps, as was the case with Twilight – she isn’t actually all that good at showing chemistry, even acting opposite someone she’s in a real-life relationship with. Whatever the reason, Stewart doesn’t even convince as the source of attention for both of these men, let alone as the ‘fairest of them all’ in the land around her but, perhaps most fatally, doesn’t appear to have all that much going on in the acting department.
Maybe she once had some promise, and maybe it’s Twilight that drained the life out of her (upon completing her filming at the end of the final chapter of the Twilight saga she remarked: “after that scene, my true final scene, I felt like I could shoot up into the night sky and every pore of my body would shoot light” so clearly the popular emo books infect the minds of those who act them out) but – whatever the reason – Stewart has real issues showing any range of emotion in this film.
There’s one scene, a kind-of Avengers-like moment where one of the supporting characters gets killed in an effort to motivate the rest into direct action, and the only reason you know her character is upset is thanks to some cleverly placed fake tear drops. That’s it. She’s got the acting skills of Steven Seagal in that scene; it’s painful to watch and threatens to fatally damage the rest of the picture.
Thankfully it doesn’t have to end on a bad note: this movie is bigger than Stewart, and possibly even bigger than the director too; an engaging, stylish, and absorbing dark fairytale that has plenty more pros than cons, and will probably be served better without either of them aboard, and instead following just the exploits Hemsworth’s huntsman, with a welcome cameo from the dwarves too. That’s the direction they could go in for a sequel / spin-off, and that’s no bad thing at all.
Don’t have high expectations – don’t expect this to be some deep, moving production driven by excellent performances and brimming with stunning action. It’s still just Snow White, only reworked in a refreshingly different way, given some welcome style, a hefty budget, some innovative ideas and a few decent characterisations. Think Lord of the Rings-lite, think Hunger Games, and try not to think Twilight. Snow White and the Huntsman is an enjoyable fare that’s certainly worth a watch.
Theatrical Cut versus Extended Edition
A quick note on this longer cut: it’s just over 4 minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut (131:33 vs. 127:14), and certainly doesn’t make the movie any darker than it already is, instead offering up five additional / extended scenes that are almost all dialogue-driven. Although they are all in-line with the tone of the piece, and therefore fans of the movie will probably enjoy seeing more footage, Snow White and the Huntsman is already a fairly lengthy affair, and already pushes its luck in the pacing department. These four-and-a-half-minutes only further threaten to tip you over the edge, particularly when you consider that none of them are really needed. Still, at least we’ve got the option to watch either cut here, which is better than just presenting them as deleted scenes, or just presenting the extended cut alone.
Amidst the additions we have an extra scene where the Queen is clear about why she is keeping Snow White alive, as well as a brief bit of slightly surprising violence when she orders the execution of everybody else; an added bit of confrontational dialogue between Snow White and the huntsman over the damage done to the land over the King’s actions is neither here nor there; more footage of the tracker on their trail only slows the runtime; and the scene where the huntsman tells William that he will regret not telling Snow White his true feelings is arguably slightly out of place, as it tends to leave you thinking that maybe the huntsman isn’t even interested in the lass (when clearly the scriptwriters have other intentions). None of it feels out of place but, as stated, it only further pads out and already-long runtime.
Rather unusually, I’d recommend checking out the Theatrical Cut first, and then seeing how much you enjoyed the movie. If it appeals to you, then I’m sure that you’ll be open to revisiting the Extended Edition somewhere further down the line, and I think that the slightly shorter runtime may win over a slightly wider audience. Certainly not a deal-breaker – nor capable of convincing over those who didn’t like the film on its Theatrical release – the longer version really is for fans and completists only. You should still at least rent the movie, however, to find out whether you’re one of them.
Our Review Ethos