First, let me state for the record that I have no built-in fondness for the fantasy genre: of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I can only stomach the first; Legend and Willow, two 80’s fantasy films that cinephiles of my generation are want to praise, likewise leave me cold. I do however have a fondness for escapist cinema, and occasionally these two aspects overlap, but with fantasy there is a nerdy tendency to preoccupy with the minutiae of the ciphers to the detriment of any kind of forward motion and attention to fundamentals of storytelling. Escapist cinema appreciates that the world created is in service of something more lofty than Easter eggs and curiosities of names, that the goal is to create something immersive, allow the viewer to daydream in the peripheries but not get lost there without a tether, that tether is story, a story that unfolds without being barnacled by commentary and self-importance. It ought to be fun in a visceral sense, anything cerebral to be mere ornament towards that end.
With the juggernaut success of The Avengers it has become patently clear that bright, flashy and optimistic is the new black. Even closer to the point to be made, Mirror Mirror (which I have not seen) is the boldly ironic incantation of the Snow White story, which I am guessing is likewise, bright, flashy and optimistic. Snow White & the Huntsman, say what you will, is offering up something considerably unfashionable in this sardonic culture of winks and nods: a sober, grimy, Grimm fairytale with women no less as the pitted adversaries. Add the much reviled Kristen Stewart into the mix and you have a powder keg to y-chromosome film geek sensibilities (we mustn’t upset the status-quo of what constitutes ‘fun’). The tendencies are there to hate the movie, I knew early on this was going to be divisive, and irrespective of what legitimate claims people may have to disliking or hating this film, you got to admit, the deck is stacked against it and the tendency is to go Hulk Smash on it because, because it would rather tell a story then make a commentary on one, it would rather create a fully realized world that is committed to its story with a genuine sense of wonder then be beholden to a consensus view with reductive brand positioning in the guise of characters, plotting forward to sell merchandise. It would rather take a recognizable Disney property of everything sweet and magical and dunk it in the mud and put a woman in the lead that is unforgivably dour, and you know what, she fits. This is not an Amy Adams wonderland, this is a universe of dark happenings of actual stakes, pitted in a kingdom run by a hormonally crazy psychopath that eats bird hearts and sucks souls through people’s mouths.
You got a problem with that? Then go back to your Marvel-generic, canned fun, and be all optimistic and shit, I like my blockbusters dark and muddy, like my heart.
Like Ridley’s Scott’s Legend it is unfashionably dedicated to its fantasy roots, but unlike Legend, it doesn’t entirely lose sight of its story and drift away listlessly. Snow White finds a perfect balance, a synergy that not even Peter Jackson got right. It softens the sentiment and heightens the dark recesses of fantasy, or at least of the beast that is blockbuster fantasy. The closest comparison I see being the final Harry Potter film, in tone and look at least. But not needing however many movies to complicate and contextualize, and be self-contained and clear; that is its virtue. There is Snow White, who becomes a Joan of Arc outcast that needs to find her way back to reclaiming her rightful throne, and there is the Wicked Queen, the usurper and Dark Lord of this story who sets out a quest to find and destroy her, lest she lose her prestigious position and youthful looks. There are the dwarves who come to recognize the importance of this castaway and seek to help her find her way, and there is the Huntsman who like a Han Solo type leading the princess though inhospitable territories, comes to realize what is important in life, and where his allegiances lie. Done. The movie commits to its fairytale, makes it lived-in and perilous, following a path of adventures that lead to a woman-on-woman battle to the death that everything previous was building towards. Oh, and it looks like a bazillion bucks well spent.
Now let’s talk about Charlize Theron as the Queen. She is my new favorite It Girl of 2012, having caught Young Adult in January and here, chewing scenery like a mother-fucker. The best comparison I can make to what Theron is doing here is Tim Curry as the Devil in Legend. Was he overacting? Probably, but that is kind of the point, to be bigger than life. It is true that Theron is not consistent in her performance of the Queen, she is shown at times as someone with some depth and nuance and then at other times, bellowing like a cartoon villain. This is not a failure on her part so much as an interesting take on the fragile mania of this character who is trying to hold together to be desirable but underneath is batshit crazy. What you get onscreen is this dichotomy manifesting, which, to me at least, made her all the more terrifying. Kristen Stewart as Snow White is not your typical Disney vision but she is able to muster something, however minimalist, that stands in for the righteous the story requires. When she goes all Joan of Arc it works, there is some fire beneath her otherwise stoic-slash-constipated look. Hell by the end you even see the faintest glimmer of a smile (CGI perhaps but still). Even Thor is pretty good as the huntsman, who gets the likeable jerk quality better than most. The dwarves are a charcter actor’s paradise from Toby Jones to Ray Winstone to Bob Hopkins, and while they play things more Game of Thrones than Disney there is the odd pun employed that hits. Again, they are not there to be their own distraction, but to move the plot forward with the right amount of ornament.
Snow White & The Huntsman feels like the real deal to me. It has that rare combination in a summer blockbuster of confidence, patience and vision that makes it feel like a modern classic of the genre, balancing the fantasy and drama perfectly. Ambition and wit have become incredibly overrated in our culture of personality, and blogs fuel this craving for the authorial imprint. It should serve as an example for aspiring storytellers: just tell a fucking story as sincerely and graciously as you can, the story matters, not your prowess as a storyteller. There is still an audience for well-told stories, even if our numbers may be dwindling.