Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fairy Tales: Another Retelling

The last fairy tale turned movie I saw did not go so well, but yet, with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron in the mix, Snow White and the Huntsman (hereafter “SWATH”) was an obvious choice for the weekend movie.  First-time film director Rupert Sanders has put himself on my “worth seeing” list with this debut.
(C) 2012 Universal Pictures

SWATH was fun, gorgeous, with good direction and CGI and all things visual (as well it should be, at its cost), as well as some good writing by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini.  Not great writing, but a good story that moved along (except for those long shots of our heroes trekking through the hills), fleshed out some familiar characters in unfamiliar ways, snuck in a scintillating point of view, and finally brought it all to a quite satisfactory close.

This is not your grandmother’s Snow White, although it may be your great grandmother’s since it reverts, as modern interpretations tend to do (see Donna Jo Napoli’s novel Zel or Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber), back toward its grim forbears.  Fairy tales were not sweet, just as folklore is not.  Fables can be harsh.  Pre-Disneyfication, these stories were meant to instruct and terrify children in order to 1) keep them in line and 2) protect them.  The forest was indeed deep, dark, and dangerous, animals were fierce and lethal, and there are times we should not speak to strangers.

Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna, Sam Spruell as her brother Finn (C) 2012 Universal Pictures.

Queen Ravenna is certainly not your grandmother’s Evil Queen.  Evil she is, but Ravenna is a feminist rewrite of the wicked stepmother, here appearing as an abused child revenging herself on the world, becoming predator instead of prey.  Queen Ravenna goes to any means to protect herself and her creepy brother Finn, and wreaks havoc while she’s at it.  Her history is effectively touched upon in the movie.  Perhaps that was the story Mr. Sanders really wanted to tell, since he cast someone who could really play it.  In the hands of Charlize Theron, Ravenna’s childhood fears follow her throughout life, as do her lessons learned:  If men find you beautiful, they may hurt you but they’ll keep you.  If they do not, you’re on your own.

The destructive reign of Queen Ravenna has corroded the land, the lakes, the hills, the mines.  The dark forest is truly frightening, as the woodlands before deforestation throughout Europe would have been.  From great hulking trunks spread branches and leaves that block the light; unruly tree roots and vines trip clumsy interlopers.  The unknown is on all sides, above and below, the better to fright you with….   

The forest created by director Sanders, production designer Dominic Watkins, art director David Warren, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, was terrifying, generating shivers and shrieks.  Even dismal forests don’t last forever, however, and the same team created a joyously colorful reward coming out of the woods.  The magic that follows Snow White is as bright as Ravenna’s is dark.  Some of the woodland creatures may have been a tad Disney-like, but the entry into this unexpected land was a breath-taking delight.  Except, perhaps, for the little fairies with their six-pack abs — I kept expecting tiny little sharp teeth to appear.  Be that as it may….. where there is light, there is shadow, and innocence has no defense against trickery.
Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart as Snow White

Costume design by Colleen Atwood was very fine — oh, those crowns, those capes.  Ravenna’s wardrobe is marvelous, the Huntsman could have been born and grown up in his clothing, the outfits worn by members of the pre-Ravenna court are gorgeous, opulent, healthy and happy.  Grown-up Snow White’s dress serves many purposes and looks terrific.  Ms. Atwood may be up for another Oscar.

Ravenna’s dark magic is visually stunning, her vampiric method of draining life and youth from young maidens repulsive.  Ravenna’s history is a horrific one.  Snow White’s travails, in comparison, are negligible.  What matters is what Ravenna inflicts on the entire kingdom, and every living thing above or below ground.  All bow to her fury and misery.  It is not only magic that created Ravenna.  She didn’t learn to be that woman overnight, nor on her own.

Charlize Theron makes the wicked queen hauntingly human despite her magicks, and often downright sympathetic.  When Ravenna shouts, it’s raw, angry, and powerful.  When Snow White shouts, her weak voice does not resonate, nor does it sound “naturalistic.” 

Kristen Stewart as Snow White was her usual tepid self.  She did as required by the intelligent script.  She has a nice face and a fan base, but while she did not detract from the film, neither did she add to it.  She's not totally incompetent, but she's....boring.  Sam Spruell playing Finn, Ravenna's sleazy, shudder-inducing brother, is not boring. Queen Ravenna, the Huntsman, William, the dwarfs, all had personal histories informing their characters.  So, presumably, had Snow White, but who could tell?

Sam Claflin as William
William, son of a Duke and presumed handsome prince prime for a rescue is the very attractive Sam Claflin, who gets the opportunity to play two sides of the fellow, and does a perfectly good job.  But hard as he may vie, the Huntsman, who does not even try, would get my vote.

SWATH brings the count to four characters in five films I’ve seen Chris Hemsworth play in the last three years.  When you’re hot….well, he is.  Hemsworth’s Huntsman is a brawling braggart, a drunkard, and a widower.  Like other characters in this story, the Huntsman has a history.  He makes us laugh, he makes us care.

The dwarfs are angry old men — mostly.  Fine actors play anti-Disney versions — no Sleepy, no Dopey, but all rather grumpy.  Look for CGI’ed versions of:  Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson.  Yes, that’s eight.  There’s some singing, some dancing, some grousing and growling. 

The film has the requisite white horse to help the imprisoned princess escape the wicked queen, an unusual number of dwarfs, mysterious masked women, two guys trying not to vie for the princess’ affections, and a Transformation:  from a child running away to a young woman striding forward on a journey quest, picking up friends along the way.  For those looking for romance, the Snow White courted by princes in Disneyland is not here.  This Snow White, as created by Sanders and his three screenwriters, is a child forced into adulthood and responsibility for her kingdom and her people, not someone looking for a date.  When Snow White finally wakes up, she is focused, dresses like Joan of Arc, then does Joan one better.

At this point in the film, some people might ask questions like “But how…” or “but when….”  Don’t think about it.  Fantasies often cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.  Don't worry, be happy.

All in all, I found the film engaging from beginning to end, amusing at times, horrifying at others.  Disney’s sweet, but grim is more fun….

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Time to dim the lights and re-read some tales from the Brothers Grimm….

No comments:

Post a Comment