Snow White and the Huntsman

My kingdom for a pair of flaming slippers

Yes, I saw The Avengers.  No, I did not find it worth writing about.

My favorite part of the hype and media jabber for Snow White and the Huntsman is that the most common piece of feedback I’ve seen, particularly in positive reviews, is that this is a “darker/gritter take on a classic fairy tale.”  This is problematic to me.  Do these paid movie critics believe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first created by Walt Disney and later adapted by the Brothers Grimm?  Or perhaps that the Grimms’ version in the original German featured dwarfs whistlin’ while they work and a nice cozy ending?  Sorry to break this to you, but fairy tales (especially the bizarre Brothers Grimm versions) were the nastiest, grossest, crudest (“darkest” if you must) stories of their time, and most of them end with death, body part removal, or inexplicable acts of violence.  There’s a reason the Addams Family were big fans of the Grimms, you know.

Rupert Sanders’ action-adventure adaptation of the tale is not so much an adaptation as a reimagining, but it retains enough of the fairy tale’s spirit that it skirts a line somewhere between the two.  One of the film’s most true-to-tale scenes (albeit a scene invented for the film) is one in which Snow White (Kristen Stewart) wanders into a mostly computer-animated meadow and encounters dozens of peculiar creatures, including a tortoise with moss on its back, mushrooms with eyes, and an enormous stag, which seems to somehow represent the heart of the forest, and which Snow White lovingly caresses in a surprisingly touching (and beautifully wordless) minute or so of reel.  The film keeps the Grimms’ “three drops of blood” motif as well.  At other times, the films borrows from The Lord of the Rings, most notably in a scene in which the seven dwarfs (played by a group of famous actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Ray Winstone) sing a harrowing lament for their fallen eighth.  I’d hoped the film might retain Snow White’s manner of coming back to life after being killed by the poisoned apple – that is, the Prince’s servants trip on a shrub and drop the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple caught in her throat – but alas, we are left with opportunistic kisses.

By the same token, there can be little to no nuance in a film that wishes to stay true to a folk tale.  Snow White must be absolutely good, and the Queen (renamed Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron) must be absolutely evil.  As such, Ravenna is often seen eating the hearts of cute animals and sucking youth from the mouths of young girls (whereas in the original, she wants to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver), as well as pandering evilly to her magic mirror (an object/character that seems thrown in for familiarity and doesn’t serve the one function it serves in the Grimm tale: informing the Queen that Snow White is alive after the Queen believes her dead).  Snow White, in this version, is someone we enjoy spending time with and want to know more about, but if you begin to develop a character, you have to go all the way, and Sander’s princess is somewhere between a good character and a Boring Hero.  The manner in which Ravenna overtakes the kingdom of Snow White’s father is ingenious, however, and when she explains why she mercilessly disposes of male monarchs and usurps their thrones, we, as an audience, are pretty much with her.

The film uses its supporting cast well, mainly the seven dwarfs, which could have been confusing to keep track of, but somehow manage not to exhaust us nor to fall into comic relief (though they do provide the film’s one or two laughs).  Chris Hemsworth appears as the titular Huntsman, pretty much doing the same thing he does in Thor, but the filmmakers wisely do not allow him to upstage the heroine.  Sam Spruell plays Finn, the obligatory secondary bad guy in a film with two leads, but even he has his place and never wears out his welcome (which is more than I can say for his hairdo).  There’s even a surprise appearance by Lily Cole (of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Rage) as Greta, one of the Queen’s prisoners.  The only character who seems out of place is William (Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood friend, who is never quite sure what part he wants to play in this story – love interest?  Loyal soldier?  Enforcer on Finn’s brute squad?  The film occasionally plays at a romance between William and Snow White, but the main action is resolved before either acts upon impulse (when both are conscious, leastways) and we are left wondering whether William has been permanently friend-zoned.

I don’t know what to call this film.  I adore the classic folk tales and fairy tales (in spite of their quirks), but this film doesn’t attempt to copy them, nor does it seek to become the new standard for future generations to use as a frame of reference (as the Disney version sadly has, at least as far as modern film critics).  Where the animated feature has glitz and color and resolution, this movie has sensibilities.  I am tempted to refer to it as a feminist war movie.  Sure, the Huntsman helps Snow White here and there, but she alone inspires the (all male) Duke’s Army to fight in her name, all for the sake of personal revenge against Ravenna, since the latter doesn’t pose a threat to the duchy.  There’s also some business with hearts and messages about beauty and its inevitable fading.  If we’re looking at it from the media standpoint, it’s a fantasy film with big battles (and one too many ambushes), but the main conflict is between two women and they’re not fighting over a man.  Whether or not fantasy is your dish, that fact alone is worth ten-fifty.

Lastly, let me say that Kristen Stewart is a fine actress.  The unfortunate stigma is that so many viewers know her only from the Twilight films and not from her great roles as Joan Jett in The Runaways and Lucy Hardwicke in In the Land of Women.  Regrettably, she doesn’t have as much to say in this film as I would have liked, and for all of the Queen’s malicious taunting, Snow White could have had a few more pearls of wisdom for us.  I’m not saying I needed her to take up the voice of the Brothers Grimm and tell me the moral of the story; no, I needed her to take up her own voice, just a little bit more, because I was (and still am) ready to listen.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012); written by Hossein Amini (based upon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm); directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth.


Let the cash-cow shine

With The Princess And the Frog, the Disney company did an arguably successful recall to the classic animated musicals many of us watched a million times as children. Most of these, as we know, are Disney’s version of popular European fairy-tales or, quite often, the “Disney-fying” of historical material.  Their latest effort, Tangled, feels like a Disney classic with CG coating.

Tangled is a reimagining of Rapunzel, a fairy-tale first penned by the Brothers Grimm (which is itself an adaptation of Mademoiselle de La Force’s Persinette), in which a young girl with enchanted hair is taken at birth by a witch, Dame Gothel, from her parents, and sealed in a tower.  The girl is eventually discovered by a prince, who proposes to her, and despite Dame Gothel’s efforts, the two escape and live happily ever after.

Rapunzel is perfect Disney fodder.  Dame Gothel, given the German name of “Mother Gothel” and played by Donna Murphy, provides all the allegory we need for a film like this.  She is the overprotective parent.  She encourages Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) to “let down her hair,” but only as far as this will serve Gothel’s needs, and never lets Rapunzel leave the tower.  Rapunzel herself is a character I admit to being surprised at: ever barefoot (a purity/innocence motif) and classically “rebellious” but also fun to spend time with.  Her voice is never shrill, ignorant or unwelcome, and her transformation from blonde to brunette in the end is a bit of a switch for Disney.  Trying to make up for ages of hair-ism, perhaps?  (Though you can’t entirely blame Disney; the Brothers Grimm were committing these acts of atrocity toward women with “imperfect” appearances long before the dawn of film).

The new characters, including Prince Eugene (Zachary Levi), secondary villains the Stabbington Brothers (Ron Perlman), and a singing thug with a hook (Brad Garrett), provide the necessary cast backbone to make the story not only a successful fairy-tale, but also a watchable and engaging adventure.

Music-wise, the film more or less delivers.  A few of the songs radiate the obnoxious teenie-bop and hip-hop vibe which will be eaten up by kids who are currently the age I was when The Lion King was released, but the “Healing Song” Rapunzel repeats until we memorize it and “Mother Knows Best,” the vintage Disney bad-guy-bolero, are thoughtfully composed.

As of January 1, 2011, Tangled is the second most expensive film ever made, and is, appropriately, a better film than the one just above it on that list (though it was made by the same company).  It conveys a sense of “moral”  as do the Grimm fairy-tales and every Disney cartoon before it, but this “message,” if we can say one exists, seems to be aimed more at pre-parents than the children themselves.  I’m hoping the children, at least, can leave this film with a wide grin.

Tangled (2010); written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard; starring Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy.