Despite first-time director jitters, Snow White and the Huntsman is solid freshman effort from Rupert Sanders

Every ten to twelve years, a new director will arrive, heralded as the new go-to guy for big, stunning visuals. I think of this kind of filmmaker as the go-big-or-go-home guys, the event filmmakers who are, by and large, going to make large-scale movies with expansive, scopey palettes. Steven Spielberg is this type of director, so is James Cameron, and the last one we got was Peter Jackson, eleven years ago. Recently they’ve tried to make Zack Snyder this guy, but he thinks rape makes an acceptable fantasy; likewise, Tarsem Singh has never become this guy because he doesn’t give a shit about storytelling. But now it’s Rupert Sanders’, best known for a series of head-turning commercials for Xbox’s HALO games, turn to be judged with his freshman features effort, Snow White and the Huntsman.

It’s not a bad effort at all. In fact, for large portions of the movie, it’s a really good effort. Sanders has a true photographer’s eye for framing and scale that lead to some gorgeously shot sequences. Sanders’ sensibility surprised me—I was expecting more bombastic sequences but really, what defined the look of Huntsman to me were the simpler images which were just so beautifully staged that they stood out. For instance, an image I LOVED was an overhead shot of Snow White (Kristen Stewart) collapsed on the ground, her blue dress spread out around her, as the camera panned up to show the Dark Forest’s vastness. The colors were so intensely saturated that against a stormy sky, the branches of the forest trees seemed to glow and the two blue spots of Snow’s dress stood out in stark relief. There was no CGI beyond what was required to put the storm clouds in the sky (because if the sky really looked like that you wouldn’t be outside filming), and it was just a single-camera shot. But it was GORGEOUS.

But then, when he wants to, Sanders is fully capable of delivering big, jaw-dropping sequences. The scene where Snow White explores the enchanted forest was unbelievable. The production design of Dominic Watkins (who is best known for his Paul Greengrass collaborations United 93 and The Bourne Supremacy) is truly unique and the whole sequence is beautiful. The fairies look like something out of a medieval woodcut, with no wings in sight but instead scaly little bodies with pointy teeth and luminescent skin. And the way they came out of the birds that had been helping Snow along was a great idea—it was a cool spin on the notion of animals helping Snow White.

But that actually brings me to what wasn’t working in Huntsman. There were some definite first-time director mistakes happening. Pacing was a big problem, especially in the beginning, and there was some narrative WTF-ness in the script, which came from three different screenwriters—Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and Hossein Amini (Drive). What is narrative WTF-ness? It’s any time there’s a fault in the narrative that makes you go WTF. For example, in the beginning when Snow escapes her prison in the castle, the birds (which turn out to be fairies) help show her the escape route. That was a clever inversion of the fairytale staple of animals helping Snow White (or any incarcerated princess), but then Snow gets to the beach where ta-da, there’s a white horse lounging in the surf. Now, this is a very pretty image but I went, WTF. Because there’s no visual language for this, unlike the birds, where we’re familiar with the image of birds aiding Snow White, and I don’t like that we’re left to assume that, oh yeah, this must be a magical horse. It’s a touch lazy and you think one of the three screenwriters would have accounted for what that horse was doing on the beach.

Here’s how easy this is to fix—you don’t even need to change the script. All you need is to re-frame the scene. The camera tracks the birds flying toward the tower Snow White is imprisoned in, so why not show the horse running up the beach with the birds, and establish that the animals are coming to rescue Snow? Because as it stands it’s just a random horse, conveniently placed because someone was too lazy to give the horse a reason to be on the beach. Other narrative WTFs include the milk bath scene with the evil queen at the beginning and the white stag in the enchanted forest—who was he? You may think I’m being harsh or too-nitpicky, but I consider Huntsman to be a real entrance for Sanders, a good effort for a first feature film that was dragged down by a few moments of narrative WTF.

As for the cast, the acting was serviceable if not outstanding from the principals. Stewart has never looked more beautiful than as lovingly lit and photographed by Sanders (who had a bit of a director’s crush, I think), and her English accent was authentic and consistent throughout. She showed better here than she does in the Twilight movies (where no one looks particularly good), but the script wasn’t calling for anything extraordinary from her. She did look believable throughout the action scenes, because they weren’t asking to her accomplish stunning feats of ass-kickery. It wasn’t like she was taking down a hundred men twice her size—she really only confronts the evil queen and then she kind of gets her ass handed to her before she sucker-punches the queen in a move the Huntsman showed her, designed to take advantage of her smaller, faster frame. There was a sweet sincerity to Stewart’s performance, though, that made Snow White a viable leader when it was time for her to rally the troops.

Charlize Theron was good as the evil queen Ravenna, but her performance veered a bit too far into hammy territory, especially when contrasted to the subtler, more menacing presence of her incesty brother (Sam Spruell, Defiance). Spruell was SO creepy and gross that to me, he was the true villain of the piece. Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers, Thor) continues to prove he’s a solid candidate for Action Star Man, though his accent (Scottish?) came in an out at will. And Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: Give Us All the Gold) was good as Medieval Hawkeye. I forget his character’s name and he was basically the Dark Ages version of Hawkeye, so.

One thing I really like about Huntsman was how they turned some fairytale conventions on their head. The bird/fairies were cool, the dwarves (lead by Bob Hoskins as the Wise Blind Dwarf) were less happy whistling helpers and more cutthroat highwaymen, and Snow’s true love was not Medieval Hawkeye, her childhood friend and fellow noble, but was the Huntsman. It was a clever way of communicating that Snow has the “common touch”. Overall, I enjoyed Huntsman thought it was a good first effort from Sanders, though pacing and some lazy narrative devices dragged it down a bit.

Oh! Another narrative WTF–did anyone else notice that no one ever clarified that it was the huntsman’s kiss that revived Snow White? So as far as anyone is concerned, Snow spontaneously came back from the dead. Zombie queen!

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23 thoughts on “Despite first-time director jitters, Snow White and the Huntsman is solid freshman effort from Rupert Sanders

  1. I had all of those WFT moments with the exception of the horse. I was like “well, its’ a fairy tale, so there’s a horse.” But, I had to surmise that the stag was some sort of King of the Enchanted Forest (did he die btw??) and that The Huntsman’s kiss broke the spell. That was all fine and dandy, but then I wondered if they ended up together in the end. In my head, yes, because that’s happiness. So, I guess I had the same issues – pacing and narrative WTF-ness. But I overall really enjoyed the film.

  2. Bud

    I loved SWATH! I must admit that the critical reaction to this film has made me make a promise to myself to try and stop reading reviews because i just do not understand how some critics had such a strong aversion to it. I really am scratching my head at it because the group i went with thought it was fantastic and a few of them are fussy as heck! I was starting to get bummed read some of the reviews and it really taught me a lesson. I get thinking it was good or maybe not your cup of tea, but when some critics say it is horrible i have to just back away slowly whilst looking scared. I really dug the cast and think it was an amazing first film from Sanders. I hope the box office continues on it’s good streak to show those critics how useless they really are!

  3. Lindsay

    I really did enjoy this movie. There were definitely pacing problems and a few wtf moments but it was SO stunning and the acting was solid.

    I was with a group of five and everyone loved it. Plus, my best friend decided that she really liked Kristen after watching it, which made me happy.

  4. Karen

    I was actually please they (Snow and the huntsman) did not acknowledge the kiss because Snow White is still young and not mature enough to be “in love”. I was left wondering if Snow knows about the kiss, in my head they both don’t know the effect of the kiss… do I make sense?

    I have the same WTF reaction towards the horse, although my friend said it was mother nature helping Snow, if that was the case it was poorly executed.
    I really enjoy the film, is it weird that I want a sequel?

  5. greenjasminetea

    I enjoyed the movie much more on the second viewing than I did on the first because I caught so much more of the subtext and symbolism. You almost have to see the film a second time to have things that nagged on the first viewing to make sense.

    For example, the horse on the beach. First time, I was “This is cheesy equine ex machina.” The second time, I realized the stag is the horse on the beach. The birds led SW to the horse and the fairies in the birds led her to the stag. Coloring of the stag matches the coloring of the horse.

    And the zombie princess? Muir says out loud that the spell was broken. But yeah, no one knows that it was the Huntsman’s kiss that did it. The Huntsman doesn’t even know. And to be honest, I’m not even sure if it was the kiss or the tears that brought her back.

    Because they removed the “training arc”, the end battle was fine by me. Mostly I was worried that they’d give Snow an out from her sacrifice. For Snow, it was a morally ambiguous act that goes against her character so for her to do it was her sacrifice. I hate when stories make that as a big point but then allow the character an out from the responsibility. I like that they didn’t do that.

    There were some pacing issues but my main quibble was that it could have used more character interaction. I feel like there is a missing scene, a crucial one, that shows when the Huntsman’s feelings for Snow White changed. Was it in the Village of the Scarred Women? Or the Sanctuary? Exactly when did he go from being “I’ll get you to the Duke’s castle” to “I’m attached to this young woman”. That’s my big quibble but I can live with it because I’m sure that fanfiction will fill in the details.

    Overall, it was flawed yet enjoyable that showed a lot of promise from Sanders. (And for Kristen, because I am a fan, I can now see her venturing her into period pieces that require an accent.)

    And not to be remissed: The dwarves ruled. If there is a sequel and it doesn’t have the dwarves, screw the sequel. That’s my unasked-for two cents worth on that subject.

    1. That’s a lovely notion, about the stag and the horse being one. But again, it needed to be more plain, if that’s the case. They tied the stag to the white butterflies, so why not have a butterfly sitting on the horse’s back that flitters away as Snow approaches, and then later we can go, “OH–it’s all the same spirit aiding her!” See how easy that is? It’s not killing the movie for me, it’s just something no one really attended to.

      I’m also glad they didn’t make a big deal out the kiss moment as Karen pointed out, but it just made me laugh as I left the theater and realized that as far as anyone actually knew, Snow was a zombie queen. I feel like that might be a thread that would be picked up in a potential sequel (Universal had talked about this being a trilogy after all), and I also thought the question of when the Huntsman’s feelings changed might also be something left for the sequel. But you can’t assume you’re getting a sequel, so that’s stuff they really should have addressed. But again, it didn’t wreck the movie. I was just like–Rupert Sanders had some narrative issues a lot of first-time directors have.

      1. greenjasminetea

        I agree that the horse or stag or both needed more narrative grounding. And it is a bit of work to get to that notion but it worked for me.

        It was definitely a big undertaking and full of risks. Sanders was tasked to make a four-quadrant movie from a fairy tale. That’s as tough a task as any director might ever be asked.

        That Sanders and team succeeded to the degree that they did, however flawed it might be, is something I can respect and admire.

  6. My biggest problem with the movie is that, at the movie’s most intense parts I wasn’t tense, excited, scared, or sad. I was literally sitting in the same position for the entire film. I agree that the visuals were beautiful, and Kristen Stewart looked amazing. I totally disagree on her accent, though. I think it was consistent in the fact that it was not, at any point, an English accent at all. It kind of reminded me of the way Kate Winslet spoke in Titanic.

    As for Chris Hemsworth (he’s Australian), I feel like his shifting accent was decent masked by the fact that he was yelling and slurring drunkenly for 90 percent of the movie.

    Kristen Stewart’s “big speech” at the end was also pretty underwhelming for me. And her waking-up on the table, without later explaining that it was the Huntsman’s kiss, was more Twilight-esque for me than Zombie-movie.

      1. Since it’s particularly difficult to describe why an accent is good or bad, let’s just say that I found it distracting and unnatural throughout the film. It wasn’t a criticism of her acting – I just think that, in some instances, it’s better to direct people to have no accent at all so that the focus is on their performance (for example: Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

  7. Nickie

    Just wanted to reply on your caption for Theron’s dip in the white stuff. It’s funny because we had this discussion on the way home from the seeing the movie.

    Well here’s my theory… When grapes get all dried out and wrinkly (like the Wicked Queen) what do you do with the raisins??

    Dip them in YOGURT!! LOL

    I just want to know how hard that stuff was to get washed out of her hair…?

  8. Blanche

    lol I just love this review! absolutely brilliant. I loved the movie and had the same WTF moments as referred to in this article.
    Kristen is the star of the show – no doubt!

  9. Emster

    I’ve decided to name the upward swirling crane shot of the girl in a loose fetal position on the forest floor “The Kristen Stewart Shot.” That girl knows how to lie emotionally broken amongst the trees.

  10. Sarah

    I didn’t anticipate loving the visuals as much as I did. There was something very Pan’s Labyrinth about them. Saw this movie with very low expectations [I was basically seeing it for Thor] and was more than pleasantly surprised.

    1. Oh absolutely. I’ve heard some crazy numbers regarding Swath that I have no clue where they came from, but the reality is this is a win for Universal. Despite lowering their projections right before the movie came out–which almost every one does, as that’s pretty much standard MO for funky movie math–for months Universal projected Swath to make around mid-50’s on opening, which it did, and then go on to make in the neighborbood of 300-350 million total, which it will. They spent around $250-260 total on it (not $500 million, where the fuck did that number even come from?), and they’re going to clear about $100 million more *just in theatrical relief*. Which means all the VOD, home video, rental, and TV/cable money is just gravy. Another $100+ million in gravy.

      Is it a win? Yes of course it is.

      1. ridley

        Thanks for the follow up. As you said, funny math is always confusing. 2011 was the summer of superheros. Green Lantern was considered a bust but Thor and Captain America wins. Green Lantern WW cume just made back its production cost. Is that where the ‘and a half’ comes in?

      2. Yeah, the “half” is meant to account for marketing costs.

        The thing about Snow White, Thor, Captain America, and X-Men: First Class and Prometheus, is that while they are not grandslam smash hits–the studios basically break even on them and what profit they do see comes in later fiscal quarters thanks to home video, rental, etc–they do make money, enough to justify sequels. I don’t know what to call that other than successful, if there’s enough $ for the bosses to decide to go at again.

        The real money test for these titles comes with the sequels. They’ve shown people are willing to go out and see these properties, now it’s time to hit the grand slam, especially since sequels typically cost more to make (for unfathomable, largely unnecessary reasons). Expectations will be especially high for Thor and Capt A, because of the monster success of The Avengers.

  11. wendy

    ok, for the stag in the forest thing – pagan european mythology has a thing where a white stag with large antlers will only show themselves to future rulers. like if you see one, you’re meant to be king kinda thing. also a white stag can stand in for oberon which ties it in to the fairies theme that was happening at the time – king of the fairies blessing the future ruler of the mortals.

    its actually echoed in many cultures – asians have the quilin that does the same thing.

    but its kinda obscure so i do get why it is a wtf moment.

    overall tho, it is a good film but i just thought it couldve been so much better. there was little to no character development for everyone except for the queen (and maybe the huntsman).

  12. marie

    looking at your archives and laughing hard at the @a bit of a director’s crush@ considering the scandal Stewart and Sanders are recently involved in!

  13. GMH76

    Ok, finally seen it and I really want to like Kristens acting, I really do, but I’m sorry I just can’t with that open mouth heaving breast thing. Yes, she’s gorgeaus but damn it I wished her Snow White could have been more badass. Once upon a times Snow White is actually much more fun to watch. Btw, was Chris trying to be a bit Brad Pitt or is that just me?
    Beautiful movie though but also agree with Cinesnark about pacing and wtf’s.

    1. hilda

      I feel like a lot of people consciously look for tics from Kristen, therefore it’s much more noticeable. She doesn’t do it any more or less than other actresses, yet for some reason people pay attention to it with her.

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