Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Snow White and the Huntsman -- Part 1

A little over two weeks after its release, I finally saw Snow White and the Huntsman. I wasn’t expecting a lot going in; I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. The movie cleaved fundamentally to the traditional Snow White story (not to be confused with the Disney animated classic circa 1937). It also extended the original story in ways that encouraged thinking long after leaving the theater.

Feeling Deja Vu
The film, starring Kristin Stewart who most moviegoers will recognize as Bella from the Twilight movies, uses several devices which echo the Twilight books and movies.

-- An apple featured early in the film may remind one of the Twilight book cover, although apples appear frequently in several versions of the Snow White legend;
-- Snow White jumps into the ocean at 0:18, mirroring Bella’s New Moon cliff diving;
-- Snow White also wanders lost in the woods, looking for help and escape, conjuring Bella’s abandonment in the woods in Twilight’s New Moon.

The evil stepmother Queen Ravenna might also be considered a vampiric entity. While she does not suck blood, she does feast on the life force of maidens, leaving them a withered husk.

All of these features could make a Twilight fan feel right at home as they view this movie.

Factors of Production
SWatH possesses a lovely, gritty feel; one can almost smell the dank of the dark forest and the salt of the ocean surrounding the castle. CGI elements are solid and appropriate to each scene; they’re unobtrusive, with the exception of the fairies. These unfortunate little creatures feel like something cropped out of Avatar, bleached and shrunken to fit SWatH. One can’t help but notice them as objects of CGI. In contrast, the troll actually feels like it is a member of the cast, albeit a very minor character.

Speaking of unobtrusive, there was an audio element that was quite the opposite. During the lost-in-the-dark-forest scene at about 0:31, the score increased in intensity and volume to heighten a sense of growing dread. Unfortunately, this is punctuated with a few odd notes that are so synthetic they pull audience from their suspended belief. The score is otherwise in sync with the rest of the film.

(A side note: the theater suffered Dolby bleed-through at inappropriate times during the movie’s run. Men in Black 3 was playing next door at the same time, and heavy Dolby use during that film leaked into the SWatH theater. Ironically, SWatH’s orchestrator/conductor Peter Anthony also worked on Men in Black 3.)

One CGI element deserves further discussion and consideration, not just for its use in this film. The black liquid shots suggest a larger cultural phenomenon at work. A shot of spilled ink implies impending hurt; greater quantities are used to dissemble/assemble, like nanotech material. This same active dark fluid element has appeared in numerous features, from television's X Files to the recently released movie Prometheus. Have we come to a cultural consensus that this kind of fluid is possible?

It may be relatively in the movie calendar year, with more summer blockbusters and holiday season releases ahead, but it wouldn’t be farfetched to imagine SWatH getting an Oscar nomination for Colleen Atwood’s work for costumes. Ravenna (played by Charlize Theron) wears some richly detailed gowns that foreshadow the next scenes in ways that other film elements could not. The Queen’s wedding gown with its deconstructed puffed sleeves consisting of bone-like materials precedes the King’s death in the next scene; Ravenna’s black v-necked gown trimmed with what looks like large feather quills or claws along the neck warn of a tooth-and-nail fight to follow.

Casting was quite good; each actor fit their role well. In particular, Charlize Theron remakes this evil Queen; it will be hard for any future remakes of this fairy tale to improve on Theron’s interpretation. While it would be nice to have seen more little people cast, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing a better job as dwarves than Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins, who do a fine ham-and-egg, good-cop-bad-cop in their respective roles. It would have been nice to have more meat on the role of Duke’s son William, as we never really get to see Sam Claflin do any real heavy lifting in this slot. Kristin Stewart and Chris Hemsworth do credible jobs as Snow White and the Huntsman; Hemsworth may want to rethink accepting any more roles with a lot of facial hair after the Huntsman and his role as Thor in both the eponymous movie and the Avengers. It’d be nice to see under the beard, along with a different kind of character than the gruff, furry man-child type.

Locations in this film were superb; they added substantively to atmosphere. How much of locations in a film like this are digital augmentations is not clear, but it’s a credit to director and editing that real and digital blend seamless. One pet peeve did crop up in this film: far too many scenes are shot in “forests” across too many films, using what are not forests but older managed woodlots. Yes, I know, only a geek like me might notice, but seriously, when are pine trees in true forests so neatly pruned that branches do not occur for 15-20 feet above the ground? This is unnatural—easier in which to film, but unnatural.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss SWatH’s thematic material.

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