There seems to be three ways of approaching the inherent problem in fairy tales when adapting one to the big screen, this problem being the fact that they are rather slight and silly stories which most adults won’t especially want to see. Approach number one is going out of fashion, and that is the hip post-modern approach: Shrek and Hoodwinked are notable older examples, and the idea is that you throw loads pop culture references at the screen all whilst acknowledging the ridiculousness of the fairy tale genre. Approach number two is to accept the nature of the story: a slightly daft wish-fulfilment tale full of pretty dresses, one note characters and dream logic. Tarsem Singh‘s Mirror Mirror absolutely nailed this approach, a goofy yet traditional retelling of Snow White, with visuals that positively embrace the oddity of the story. Complete with dance numbers, giant wooden puppets and guano beauty treatment, it eschewed modern tendencies towards the dark in favour of a light and old fashioned fairy tale that was silly and it knew it.
The third approach to 21st Century fairy tale films is to try and cover up the ridiculousness of the plot by making it sombre, gritty and SERIOUS. The theory must be that if one adds a certain level of badassery and battles to a much retold tale, it will become new and cool and men will watch it, too. Such is the approach of Snow White and the Huntsman, a film which aims to take a Grimm story and make it a whole lot grimmer. Whilst arguably the original fairy tale was hardly a laugh a minute, Hunstman is certainly a sharp break from the more childish story that is more familiar to audiences. There are certainly no sing-alongs here, there’s a definite lack of chirpy house cleaning, and not one of the eight dwarves is called Happy.
Instead, the film becomes a story of scheming, revenge and darkness, resulting in a film that is irredeemably crippled under the weight of its own portentousness. The evil Queen is now a bitter misanthrope who feeds off the beauty of others; the Huntsman is a drunk whose wife died in some unexplained backstory. The dwarves, meanwhile, are the last of their race, the rest presumably wiped out by the bitter, misanthropic Queen. Everybody communicates in faux-Shakespearian language that adds to the sombre atmosphere, and most of the world on screen is grey, black and brown. The whole film just thuds along, seemingly depressed at its own existence.
This would, perhaps, be ok, if the rest of the film engaged or thrilled in any way. But instead the plot zips along with one event meaninglessly following the other, as the story hits all the beats you expect from something with Snow White in the title. So we get flights to the forest, poisoned apples and even a totally pointless Prince Charming. It falls into the trap of the literary adaptation that tries to fit in all the big moments at the cost of pace and character development. It’s baffling: why shoehorn in all these traditional elements if you are trying to do something different and edgy with the story? Instead it just feels like the same old Snow White but told by a depressed fourteen year old.
The miserable cast hardly sell it, either. Any fan of Thor knows that Chris Hemsworth can deliver a dodgy line in ye olde English and still make it believable, yet here he is inexplicably burdened with a terrible Scottish accent and a character that goes nowhere. The Dwarves, an astoundingly talented collection of actors featuring Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins and Toby Jones, are sidelined to obscurity and barely register. Charlize Theron at least tries to have a bit of fun, but most of the time she just ends up shouting and it feels rather overdone. Sam Claflin (the plank from Pirates of the Caribbean 4, here playing the non-entity of a character, William) should probably never act again.
And then there is poor old Kristen Stewart. Few other young actresses get nearly as much bad press or bile directed at them, as anywhere on the internet outside of Twilight fan sites seems determined to mock and ridicule her as much as possible. It’s totally unfair, as she can clearly act and she looks the part, too. But she is hampered by a script that gives her very little to do beyond looking concerned or amazed. It doesn’t help that she’s once again in a role where two men with far more agency than her both fall madly in love with her when she has given the audience no reason to suggest why this might be the case. Once the Twilight hype dies down after the last film, hopefully she’ll be left alone a bit and given the freedom to choose projects that she can excel in. This is not one of those projects.
The person with most at stake, though, is first time director Rupert Sanders, graduating from advertising to feature films with a big, CGI heavy studio film. And actually, on the strength of this film, he could go far. There are some very strong visual elements to the film (a bridge troll is a particular highlight) and he has an inventiveness that adds some levity to the otherwise moribund proceedings. If only the flair he so clearly displays for visuals could be given more focus and direction with a better story and script, he would have the potential to make something great. Here, however, his creativity drowns beneath a swamp of self-importance. Far from being an exciting and fresh take on the story, Snow White and the Huntsman is that worst thing a film can be: boring.
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