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!