Snow White & the Huntsman afforded me a truly rare cinematic experience – never before had I been at the cinema where there was spontaneous communal guffawing and stifling of giggles by the audience during the film’s supposedly rousing, dramatic high point. Filipino audiences are generally forgiving, but I guess I lucked into a snarkier crowd that wasn’t mostly made up of Twilight fans. I didn’t expect much of Kristen Stewart, I never particularly disliked her nor admired her. But as she tried to summon every ounce of her movie star mystique and post-millennial warrior-princess pseudo-swagger, I wondered why nobody seemed to have thought of giving her a screen test just to check if she could pull this scene off.
I’m not altogether surprised that the movie ended up being commercially well-received, since it mashed together feminism and fantasy layered with the “dark” angsty tone that seems to connect well with a wide range of audiences these days, from goths to housewives. What I’m rather disappointed at is how much more money it made compared to what to me was the more diverting Snow White film of the year – Mirror Mirror.
Mirror’s Lily Collins may be no brilliant talent either, but at least she has this natural winsomeness, coupled with a game, genial energy in her performance that’s easy to watch and be charmed by. She coos and grins, and even swash-buckles a bit, and at the end she’s a pretty princess who gets her happy ending and that’s perfectly fine with us. It’s a classic character arc and Collins isn’t called on to do much heavy lifting. Her Snow White is like comfort food, not a challenge to the palate, vaguely reassuring. The story is almost beside the point in these adaptations anyway, so one wonders why the SW&TH team tried so hard to foist this epic, layered Frankenstein of a screenplay on us. Noble attempt, but in the end, trying too hard just makes you look like… you’re trying too hard.
Stewart’s Snow Warrior tries to go SO much deeper and reach SO much farther than Collins’ Snow Lite it turns her and the rest of the film into a muddy medieval slog. The writers & director seem to have bleach-bypassed (a metaphorically apt film processing effect, much overused recently to lend tonal gravitas where there is none) all the fun out of the fairytale, injecting dramatic pathos where it is neither required nor welcome. Basically, Collins as a sweet but feisty princess – um… ok, Stewart as a mythical warrior-goddess, um… no.
Chris Hemsworth may have almost just enough charisma to carry the movie on his broad blockbuster-proven shoulders, and he easily could have if they’d given him better stuff to do besides swing an axe and smolder on cue. Charlize Theron, well… she’s definitely physically more imposing than Julia Roberts, and she played up her Ice Queen looks to her advantage. It’s a ferociously dedicated performance at least, that makes you wish she had better foils to play against besides her Fred Armisen dead ringer of a brother. Star support like Mirror’s Armie Hammer and Nathan Lane, who both shine by stepping up to to the goofiness surrounding them, and just nailing certain comedic beats allotted them (Nathan’s “grasshopper rape” line is one of the year’s funniest so far). They give nominal stars Collins and Julia Roberts a LOT to work with, making it easier to play off each other’s hackneyed rivalry, whatever one’s opinion on their actual “fairness”. Julia Roberts clearly had fun with this role, a rather risky one if you really think of it from a fading, aging star’s perspective. Some critics may have pointed out her wavering accent as one of several failings. But to me she seemed to actually be doing it on purpose, setting up one line with an exaggeratedly fake Masterpiece Theatre reading, and shifting back to straight Hollywood twang for the punchline. If I’m right, then it’s even more of a brilliantly satirical performance than most give her credit for. She’s practically playing the Storyville version of her character in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The bloom has faded off the rose, and she didn’t mind making fun of that. As for Theron, the rose is still pretty much in full bloom, especially compared to the relative bland wallflower that is Stewart’s Snow. And so it just seems a bit ridiculous instead of chilling to see Theron age-fied up and covered in black goo when you can’t help but think they could have just gotten Madonna to play a scary, diabolical blonde diva, considering she pulled off the exact same melt-into-a-bunch-of-ravens trick in her video for Frozen. Which brings me to the rest of the imagery that SW&TH cribbed from. For a movie that appears to be built on a series of “money” shots, it’s rather shameless about “adapting” them from other fantasy favorites. Entire scenes seems to ripped off from Ridley Scott’s ouvre, from Legend to Gladiator to his recent Robin Hood. Then there are nods to Narnia, Fantasia 2000, LOTR, Excalibur, Neverending Story, and even to Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc: The Mess(enger) and Arthur & the Invisibles kiddie films.
I can’t really fault director Rupert Sanders though, for a first-time feature director, his helming is actually pretty slick. There’s some eerie, evocative stuff going on in the pre-Stewart part of the film, which is why it’s even more of a letdown later when you realize that it’s just not going to hold up to its early promise. My first mental WTF was when Snow Stewart whispers the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety (only to be totally negated later as she’s held up to be this pseudo-pagan goddess) as the introduction to her character. And the WTF moments just didn’t stop coming. Snow “enchanting” a forest troll into submission by giving him the lamest version of a Care Bear stare I’d ever seen was the point when I gave up hoping that Stewart would rise to the role. And then when Bambi’s dad came out to play, I gave up on the rest of the film as well. Which is a real shame, because with some script doctoring, a lovelier/livelier lead, and a even a few just slightly less derivative visual motifs, this really could have knocked it out of the park. I’m interested in what more Sanders can do with different material. He’s got an eye for sure, if maybe a wee bit too much enthusiasm. Having gotten this out of his system, maybe he could do a better job adapting a Vertigo graphic novel. Certain scenes even made me think, that with a good enough script (in my dreams, worked on by Tom Stoppard, Michael Tolkin & William Goldman), maybe his success with this “gothic fairytale” would encourage Warner Brothers to tap him for Sandman, and make some decent money off of that venerated property.
Another WTF, how come despite being played by such rather well-respected character actors as Toby Jones & Ian McShane, none of SW&TH’s dwarves really stood out as distinct personalities? Mirror Mirror may have boiled its dwarves (played by actual little people with varying degrees of acting prowess) down into a set of silly stereotypes, but at least you could kinda make out that each had a certain schtick and visual identity.
Mirror Mirror’s script may be wacky fluff at best, but there’s something refreshingly unpretentious about how it seems to just want to make its audience smile, whether from its zany humor or quirky imagery. The sets, props, backdrops and costumes all appear meant to appeal to the little Bravo TV fan in all of us. And such a collection of painstakingly-crafted costumes we may not likely ever see again with the passing of inimitable design genius Eiko Ishioka, who may be better known for her work on Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. I’m glad that in her final years Ishioka met her aesthetic match in director Tarsem before she left this world (much much too soon) for the golden notions shop in the sky. They created a fairytale-land that could literally not have been conceived by any other creative coupling, a candy-colored realm filigreed with the elaborate textures and patterns found in the Orientalia of a bygone Belle Epoque, Asian surrealism laid over a EuroDisney fantasy-scape with a nod to the czars and sultans as well. And despite this stylistic hodgepodge, there’s a very compelling and charming visual cohesion to the film’s look. Narratively, it’s also the most rationally plotted-out of Tarsem’s films. The fairy tale merely lent its bones upon which the creative team draped their visual gags and flourishes, and each aspect bolstered the other. Tarsem proved in The Fall that he can shoot exotic locations with the best of them, but with this and last year’s Immortals, he’s fully embraced the artifice of CGI-enhanced stagecraft. The movie was obviously shot completely on sound stages, but the production didn’t shy away from playing up the illusion, designing theatrically elaborate spaces that set the tone in ways both garish and subtle, from the gilded bauble of the palace, to the composed vertical lines of forest, to the asymmetrical “mirror” world. If both movies were fashion collections, Mirror Mirror would be the latest couture line from Kenzo – a fresh, quirky blast of carefully calibrated colors, while SW&TH would be Mugatu’s Derelicte – the artfully arranged leavings of a well-drained stockpile of ideas.