(PG) National release
(M) EISTY princesses, Hollywood-style, feature in two of this week’s new movie releases, just when you might have been forgiven for thinking it was exclusively a man’s world when it comes to big screen heroics.
The Brothers Grimm story of Snow White has played an important role in cinema history since it was selected by Walt Disney in 1937 as the subject of the first American feature-length animated film. For a couple of generations, Disney’s pallid princess, those crazy seven dwarfs, the insipid prince and the evil queen represented the quintessential screen fairytale; the queen-witch was terribly scary (so much so that, in Britain, the censors gave the film an A — for adults — classification), but of course there was a happy ending.
I don’t know why this hardy perennial has sparked the interest of filmmakers in 2012, but
is the second film this year based on the legend. The first,
released in March, was a tongue-in-cheek affair with Julia Roberts as the vain and vicious queen. The new film, the first feature directed by Rupert Sanders, takes itself very seriously and unravels the familiar story at considerable length, more than two hours.
The prologue tells the backstory: a king (Noah Huntley) and queen (Liberty Ross) of some unspecified kingdom are blissfully happy at the their daughter, Snow White ( made fun of the parents’ peculiar choice of a name), but soon after the queen takes ill and dies. While fighting an army of black-clad warriors that has invaded his kingdom, the king releases their prisoner, beautiful Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and is instantly besotted with her. On their wedding night she stabs him to death and seizes the throne with the help of her sinister brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), and imprisons little Snow White (Raffey Cassidy).
Given that vampires are all the rage in movies right now, this version of the story has Ravenna retaining her youth by sucking — not the blood but the essence — of young girls, and the inevitable magic mirror confirms her status as the fairest in the land. Until, of course, Snow White is transformed from a little girl into ethereal Kristen Stewart.
From here on we’re on more familiar ground, except that, as the new film’s title suggests, more emphasis is given to the character of the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth). In earlier versions his assignment has been to take Snow White into the forest and kill her; instead, he lets her escape. In this version she has already escaped and his mission is to capture her. There are some scary scenes in the dark forest before the Huntsman locates the fugitive and is persuaded to become her ally against Ravenna and Finn.
She has other allies. The seven dwarfs duly put in an appearance, played by a septet of British character actors miniaturised by the magic of computers. They include Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone; the very idea of contracting the beefy Winstone into the body of a dwarf is weird, but the dwarfs supply a few limited moments of much-needed light relief. Snow White’s other allies are the remnants of her father’s followers, led by Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and including William (Sam Claflin), the young man who was her companion when they were children.
Oddly enough we now have a situation similar to the series that established Stewart’s celebrity: her character is torn romantically between two would-be lovers, William and the Huntsman. In this way the filmmakers play it safe, keeping to very familiar territory, but it doesn’t work because Claflin’s lightweight performance barely registers, leaving the field entirely to Hemsworth.
All of this is most beautifully photographed by talented Greig Fraser, an Australian whose work on films such as the impressive and Jane Campion’s has earned him several important Hollywood assignments, but otherwise it’s a routine reworking of an oft-told tale. Theron is wasted in the role of the evil Ravenna and Stewart, perhaps, should consider widening her range away from these supernatural extravaganzas (her role in the forthcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s THE fairytale that unfolds in Pixar’s is supposedly an original one, although many of the plot elements are familiar.
One of the problems of this disappointing medieval Scottish yarn is that there are two conflicting story-lines.
In the first, red-headed Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, is a tomboy who prefers riding horses and shooting arrows to doing girly things. She’s upset when her parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), decide she must marry one of the useless sons of three rival clans, the Macintoshes, the Dingwalls and the MacGuffins (the last being a movie in-joke reference to Alfred Hitchcock).
Having set up this narrative, the film then drops it in favour of another story altogether. In this one Merida, behaving like a spoiled teenager and fed up with her mother’s restrictions on her, stumbles on the cottage of a witch (Julie Walters) in the forest and obtains from her a magic cake that, when fed to Queen Elinor, turns the unfortunate woman into a bear. Given that there’s a savage bear in the vicinity, Merida must somehow turn her mother back into a human before her father kills her in mistake for the bad bear.
Pixar animated films have been known in the past for their wit and invention; films such as the trilogy and are classics of the genre, but lacks the elements that have distinguished Pixar from lesser animation houses. The animation is as good as you’d expect — Merida’s flaming-red hair is particularly striking — but the film feels like a second-class Disney film.
The characters, Merida aside, aren’t interesting or memorable, and the Scottish setting and accents add little to the proceedings. Like many animated films these days, the film is screening in 3-D and 2-D. I saw the 2-D version, but I don’t think I missed much by not experiencing the extra dimension.