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Thursday, June 7, 2012 12:33 pm

Darker White makes for a vibrant tale

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The second entry in this year’s Snow White Sweepstakes arrives in the form of Snow White and the Huntsman, a far darker take on the tale than Mirror, Mirror, which debuted a mere two months ago only to come and go with a $61 million whimper against its $85 million budget. A third version of the fairy tale from Disney, which was to feature the seven dwarves as ninjas defending Hanna’s Saoirse Ronan was thankfully canceled last week due to budgetary concerns, which is proof positive that something good did result from the box-office debacle that was John Carter.

This version, from director Rupert Sanders who makes an impressive debut here, is far darker in tone than Mirror and is more in keeping with the Brothers Grimm’s take on the story. However, thanks to writers Hossein Amini, Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock, certain tweaks have been made to appeal to modern audiences as the title damsel-in-distress has been transformed into a warrior princess, while her rescuers, the seven dwarves, now appear more Hobbit-like. When they set out to restore their charge to her rightful throne, the whole production takes on a Lord of the Rings vibe that ultimately strengthens the film.

No doubt you know the story of the king who foolishly marries far too quickly after the death of his beloved wife and winds up with an evil witch who kills him and keeps his daughter in seclusion. Huntsman adheres to this to the letter during its first half hour, though Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna is more of a succubus than a witch, literally draining the life out of her husband and any young woman who crosses her path, in order to maintain her youthful appearance. As the kingdom’s supply of young maidens rapidly dwindles, Ravenna discovers that if she were to consume the heart of her stepdaughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart), she would be forever young as she is the personification of purity and life itself. However, the princess escapes from captivity, hightails it to the dark forest and is soon overwhelmed by the evil that lives there. The queen is not one to take disappointment lightly, so she charges the Huntsman (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) with finding and bringing her back.

As with Mirror, this film’s strong suits are its visuals. Sanders and his crew pull out all of the stops to plunge us into a naturalistic fairy tale world that is at turns a place of palpable nightmares or one of glorious dreams come to life. Snow White’s first excursion into the Dark Forest is a showstopper as she’s accosted by trees that come to life, and images of death around every corner. Piles of dead birds teeming with maggots, flowers that bleed and horrific demonic creatures greet her, only to have Sanders move his camera high above the action to show our heroine truly trapped by the Queen’s evil. Equally impressive is the flipside of this locale, when the dwarves take Snow White and the Huntsman to a hidden location known as Sanctuary, a realm lorded over by fairies that teems with life, as moss-encrusted tortoises laze about, rabbits frolic and all manner of plants bloom while a great white stag oversees it all. Both locations dazzle and show that Sanders has an eye for detail that results in lush settings. He’s also not afraid to throw in a bit of symbolism, as birds are a recurring motif in the film, with crows being harbingers of death while finches prove to be signs of salvation. This carries over to the queen’s outfits as they’re festooned with various kinds of feathers and she even sports a collar accented with tiny bird skulls on another.

Equally dominant is the Christian iconography that’s present throughout the film. Snow White comes to be looked upon as a messiah by those who follow her and it’s easy to see why. Those who spend any amount of time with her notice that their aches and pains disappear and she comes to be regarded as the very personification of new life, charged with resurrecting the kingdom that’s been transformed to a barren wasteland under the queen’s rule. That she recites the “Hail Mary” during a time of need and ends up looking like Joan of Arc, a holy warrior if there ever was one, in the film’s final act, only underscores the role’s religious overtones, which never seem forced.

While the film’s three principals could have easily been overshadowed by the film’s many special effects, they all manage to hold their own. Theron was born to play the role of the vain queen. With her icy good looks and haughty demeanor, she need do little to convince us that sucking the life out of a young girl is all in a day’s work for Ravenna. There are times when she lays it on too thick, but the sense of menace she brings to the character overrides any impulse we may have to laugh whenever she goes a bit over the top.

Hemsworth proves he’s more than a hunk with a hammer as the Huntsman, a tortured soul grieving the loss of his wife. He finds a renewed sense of purpose when he decides to protect Snow White. A scene in which he confesses his failings to the sleeping princess is one of the film’s emotional highlights. As for Stewart, she’s fine early on as the confused Snow White, a role that has more than a passing resemblance to “Twilight’s” Bella. However, as things get more dire, she’s able to convince us of the character’s growing strength and sense of duty, which compels her to lead a revolt against the queen.

Along with these fine performances, there are other impressive visual effects. The most impressive is the rendering of a troll who doesn’t take too kindly to those who cross his bridge without permission, while a bit of computer-tweaking convincingly reduces Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Ray Winston, all larger-than-life character actors, to the size of dwarves. Yet, it’s the familiar tale told through a lens darkly that makes Snow White and the Huntsman memorable. Far from a story for children, this adult fairy tale effectively reminds us of the power of love, loyalty and redemption, in a film that will stand the test of time.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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