If you ever read the original fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, they are quite unlike anything you’ve seen by Disney. Most people know that, but it bears repeating.
The Little Mermaid didn’t get the prince to fall in love with her and became sea foam. In Cinderella, her wicked stepsisters ended up much more damaged than just psychically – when trying to trick the Prince into thinking the glass slipper belonged to one of them, one cut off her toe and one her heel. And in some versions, their eyes were pecked out by birds. Hats off to Stephen Sondheim who used this in Into the Woods.
Interestingly, Disney’s Snow White was somewhat dark on its own. The Wicked Queen is up there with Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent as one of the truly evil all time baddies in a Disney film. As the Old Lady offering Snow White the apple she was hideous, and her death off the cliff stayed with me for a long time. But the rest of the movie did have the Disney happy song vibe. Needless to say, the bright and chipper Mirror, Mirror which came out earlier this year didn’t really cut it. Pretty but lacking substance. Julia just can’t play evil.
So it wouldn’t have taken too much for Snow White and the Huntsman to surpass this earlier film. Thankfully it had even more to recommend it than just being slightly better than Mirror, Mirror.
Where Julia Roberts was a mildly mean royal, Charlize Theron’s Ravenna is a Wicked Queen. Note the capitals. She has a backstory that gives her character some real reasons to hate men and do anything to stay young and beautiful, including sucking the very life and youth from a steady stream of young girls. (Her mother also seems to play a part in this mental state, but ain’t that always the way.) Ravenna killed Snow White’s father after tricking him into marrying her and locked the young princess in a tower.
The young princess grew up to be Bella Swan, excuse me, Kristen Stewart. A lot of people have grumbled that in no universe would Stewart be considered “fairer” than Theron. And I myself have not been a huge Stewart fan – though I thought she was the perfect in Into the Wild. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by Stewart’s Snow White. She was innocent, but not naive. Compassionate but not stupid. And yes, she was beautiful. I think that “fairer” here is more than just the outside. While Theron is undoubtedly a godess, in the right circumstances Stewart can be striking and lovely. But here it was more than just that. Ravenna is evil, regardless of what brought her there. Snow White becomes a life force, connected with nature and an inherent goodness. It is that goodness, that “heart” that will be the queen’s undoing, not Snow White’s pretty face.
A little cheesy, sure. But SWaTH didn’t play up the cheesiness as much as it could have. The scenes selling Snow White as a force of good went just to the limit and came back to earth. I always hate the too too sweet princess, who floats on air and exists to be GOOD. Here Snow White may have a hint of that, but she kicks ass too. She doesn’t expect someone else to fight her war for her, leading the charge against the queen.
And even more to the movie’s credit, the potential love triangle remained only a potential. This has been Chris Hemsworth’s year – he returned as Thor in The Avengers, played the non-stereotypical horror movie fodder in Cabin in the Woods, and now the Huntsman. Hemsworth has managed to act beyond his muscles, something not all beefcake type actors have managed. Not battling him for Snow White’s affection is Sam Claflin as William, Snow White’s childhood friend. I won’t tell you which one of their kisses reverses the curse of the apple…but it is besides the point. Both pledge themselves to ending the Queen and getting Snow White on the throne. And both have their skills – the Huntsman swings a mean axe and William, he could give Hawkeye a run for his month with a bow and arrow.
And because this is Snow White, there are dwarves. Not the kind that will sing Heigh-ho, or do tricks, but the kind that will rob you and leave on the side of the road, bleeding out. And rather than employing actual dwarves, a slew of famous british actors have been digitally shrunk – such as Ian McShane, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone. But it’s done so well, you don’t even notice.
All of the digital effects are well done. The Dark Forrest is sufficiently spooky and owes quite a large debt to Guillermo del Toro. Ravenna’s aging and magic powers looks real enough, and her ability to become a conspiracy of ravens is remarkable realized. But the Sanctuary is the crowing achievement here. Where the Dark Forrest is Pan’s Labyrinth, the Sanctuary is the live-version of forrest in Princess Mononoke. The fairies are familiar enough to be recognizable but different enough to be interesting and entire Sanctuary area is just bursting with that wondrous quality where magic and nature meet.
Multi-Oscar winner Colleen Atwood has outdone herself with the costumes here. Ravenna’s dresses are gorgeous, but so clearly made to be worn by someone with a damaged soul – bird skulls, flocks of dark feathers, metallic fabric that is all but armor against the world…stunning and dark and cruel.
And rather than wearing a pretty gown, Snow White is dressed like a peasant for the most the film, until she’s put into some very Jean of Arc armor.
Yes, the movie could have used some editing, but the horror-based take on a story that begins in blood works well and is a good entry into the non-Disney fairy tale.
**The movie pulled in around $56.3 million this weekend, which is $20 million more than the industry expected. Universal execs must be cheering right now.