Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SWATH in Theaters Now!

Based upon what I'd seen in the previews, I was pretty excited to see Snow White and the Huntsman (known as SWATH on the web). I knew it would be dark, so there were no surprises there. I expected amazing costumes and visually stunning cinematography. But there were a few other surprises, both good and bad.

SWATH actually follows the original story of Snow White (at least what I know from Disney) fairly closely. I guess I expected something that diverted a little more since the title, after all, wasn't Snow White and the Prince. Perhaps the biggest surprise, which isn't a surprise if you know the story well, is Snow White's affinity to animals, drawing them to herself, being able to calm them. I just wasn't expecting it in this story where the previews have focused on Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna. But the magic is somewhat balanced in this telling. On one side is the evil queen's black magic and poisonous control, which has killed the land. On the other side is a sanctuary of good magic where Snow White communes with the fairies and animals and the land is still verdant. This sanctuary reminded me strongly of The Chronicles of Narnia, with its "old magic" feel. It surprised me so much to see that aspect that I didn't like it much at first. It was beautiful, but I kept thinking it was a knockoff of Narnia, and a cheap one at that. It has grown on me since watching it.

Kristen Stewart (known for her role as Bella in the Twilight series) and Chris Hemsworth (known for his role as the comic book god Thor) star as Snow White and the Huntsman. The Huntsman is a drunk who gets tricked into hunting down Snow White in exchange for the return of his dead wife. Hemsworth does a fine job of portraying a giant of a man, lost in deep sorrow. Stewart plays a darker Snow White than Disney's, but it works in this tale of a girl imprisoned for many years in a tower of her own castle. Snow White is sad and serious and very dirty. It's almost funny that under all that dirt is the most beautiful woman in the land. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Stewart, her previous role as Bella colors viewers' opinions of her in SWATH. She plays a similar sort of character. But Twilight aside, Stewart fits the dark, sad princess she's meant to portray here.

I enjoyed this retelling of the story. I liked the visuals and the behind-the-scene ideas. I liked the way this portrayal fleshed out the original story. But thematically, SWATH falls short. The themes certainly aren't bad in and of themselves, but they lack cohesiveness. At the end, they need just a little something extra to tie them all together and wrap things up for the viewer, but instead, the end just leaves you feeling a little bereft and slightly confused.

(SPOILERS follow throughout the remainder of the review.)

Despite the suggestive title and movie poster images, SWATH is not a love story. The Huntsman is grieving over his dead wife. Snow White depends on his help, and he comes to admire her. He even says she reminds him of his wife. But despite a kiss, there's no sense that a romance is blossoming except what the viewer's preconceptions put there. The kiss awakens Snow White, but here's where the mythology of the story and the thematic elements get a little confusing. We don't actually know why the kiss awakens her. It doesn't seem to be true love. I don't think it's even meant to be, unless there's something in the subtext I missed.

There is actually a Prince of sorts in this story, though the title might lead you to think otherwise. In this telling, he's actually a Duke's son and Snow White's closest friend when they are children. He eventually joins her party and regrets that he did not know she was alive sooner, but there's no romance there either. This story is more about war than love, so that makes sense. But if you are looking for romance, you'll be disappointed. Snow White doesn't get her Huntsman or her Duke. Both kiss her, and I guess if you are pulling for one or the other, the Huntsman wins, but it's a rather anti-climactic love triangle. Absolutely nothing happens. Actually, it's kind of refreshing if you are sick of love triangles and forced, cheap romances. The problem is not in the lack of romance, but as I said before, it's in the lack of any solid, unifying themes. I'll try to explain.

Snow White is innocent and pure, which is why she can defeat the queen. The Huntsman tries to teach her to use a knife, and she says she could never do that to anyone, which is consistent with the whole innocent character thing. This Snow White may be a fighter, but that doesn't mean she needs to wield a sword. That's great. That's the idea I got at the beginning of the movie. Then Snow White eats the apple and dies, which by the way, isn't very smart of the queen. As explained in this movie, Ravenna needs Snow White's fresh beating heart in her hand in order to become immortal. So, why does she do all that pretending with the apple? Why not just carve the heart right out of the girl? Anyway, Snow White returns to life with a kiss (the meaning of which, as I explained above, isn't clear), and suddenly, she is a new person. She gives an impassioned speech and then leads her army against the queen. I think I could have believed it with just a tiny bit more explanation, something to tie the loose ends together. Because, sure, dying changes a person. That's believable. But the why of it should be clear. You're a bad person; you die; you come back to life: you realize you'd better get your act together. You're a good person; you die; you come back to life: you become a fighter? It's not the obvious sequitur. I would have more easily believed that Snow White's purity gave her greater powers when the queen killed her. Instead, it's like she all of a sudden "grew up." She was running from destiny before, and now she's ready to face it. I guess that works, too, but it's kind of lame for a movie with so much cool magic and mythology. Why not use the mythology to its fullest advantage?

Snow White ends up stabbing the queen. In the end, it isn't her purity that kills the queen. It's the Huntsman's advice that she initially turns down, presumably because she is too good to do something like that. I couldn't figure out if the movie was telling me that Snow White's innocence and purity were good or that Snow White was just naive at the beginning. It seemed like it was saying both, and that simply doesn't work.

Snow White's last words to the queen are, "You cannot have my heart." But she says it with tears on her cheeks and this compassion she seemed to have all along for the queen so that I kept waiting for the implied "but" in the sentence: "You can't have my heart, but...." A few more words there could have been the clincher. It could have been the explanation for why one magic was more powerful than the other. But actually, I don't think the movie makers were trying to say one magic was more powerful. The only reason I can see, according to the movie, that Snow White defeats the queen is that a prophecy says the queen can only be defeated by someone more beautiful than she. If that's the case, why show us the good magic or go on and on about how Snow White is "The One," as though it means something (more than beauty, that is)? Granted, it fits the story of Snow White, which is about one beauty winning out over another, but the way the story is played in the movie, it seems like they were trying to make it be about something more.

So, there is no thematic resolution and no romantic resolution to this movie, only a slapped-together emotional resolution that doesn't follow logic and seems to rest more on revenge. Again, that alone would work for some movies. This movie just had so many things it was trying to do that it couldn't pull them all off together.

The best part of this movie is definitely Ravenna, and more than anything, I think the producers were concerned about making a cool-looking movie. Her costumes are gorgeous, if you like skulls and that gothic look, and at one point, she turns herself into a flock of ravens, which when they return and form her body again is grotesque but visually stunning. This movie was made to jar the senses, and I knew that before I saw it, just from the trailers. It's rated PG-13 for graphic fantasy violence.

One scene perfectly illustrates the entire movie for me. Ravenna dips herself into something that looks like thick milk, and as she comes up, crown on but otherwise naked (nothing shows), the mud is dripping beautifully down her face and neck, making her look like a sculpture. The scene is fantastic, but you don't really know what's going on. Mud bath? With her crown on? She'd just eaten a bird's heart, so magic ritual...? An illustration of her evilness and the extent of her poison that she bathes in this while the people outside are desperate for the leftovers of her bath going down the drainage pipes?

This movie is beautiful (in a very dark kind of way), but it kind of leaves you wondering what exactly it's about. Three stars.


  1. That's disappointing. I was expecting more from this film.

    1. I was, too, but it's still fascinating to watch.


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