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If you want to redo the Snow White fairytale for modern sensibilities and still stay as true as possible to the original story this is about as good as it gets. All the key elements remain — the innocent Snow White, the evil queen who wants to retain her beauty, the Huntsman tasked with killing the girl, the charming prince, and the dwarves who look after her. Take these elements, add in a bit of female empowerment donned in shining armor and voila!
Like in the fairytale, King Magnus (Noah Huntley, 28 DAYS LATER) remarries Ravenna, the evil queen (Charlize Theron, MONSTER), after the death of his wife. Snow White is a young girl at the time and the new queen is jealous of her beauty. After Ravenna murders the king she imprisoned Snow White (Kristen Stewart, TWILIGHT) in the tower for years. When Snow White comes of age, she escapes and the queen forces the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, THOR) to hunt her down in the forest and cut out her heart. The Huntsman of course has a change of mind and decides to let her go free instead.
Where the story differs is how it keeps the Huntsman as Snow White’s protector. The dwarves come along later and serve more as additional backup. And also color. The personalities are not defined and there is no Sneezy. But look at the list of character actors that play them — Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and Brian Gleeson. Prince Charming, now named William (Sam Claflin, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDESe), even gets to be more than a deus ex machina who rides in to save the day at the end. As the childhood crush of Snow White, he is driven to infiltrate the ranks of Finn (Sam Spruell, THE HURT LOCKER), the evil brother of the queen. Of course in this story Snow White plays with the boys, taking a much more direct role in her own tale.
The Disney version of the fairytale is the one most will know. That version is a classic battle between good and evil. Snow White is pure and innocent, whose grace brings civilization to men. The evil queen is jealous of her beauty and sets out to kill her because of it. The innocence of that animated film allows the grand issues to play out powerfully. By putting Snow White in a suit of armor you lose some of the stark differences. This version touches on the power beauty holds, but it really only scratches the surface of the topic. If you want to modernize a classic tale, it seems fitting to have it comment on modern times. The notion of the power of beauty is a big issue today, but alas the film misses the opportunity to go deeper.
Another missed opportunity is Snow White’s way with nature and animals. It’s cute in the Disney version, but it’s epic and gorgeous here. As Snow White goes deeper into the forest, she makes Dr. Dolittle’s skills look weak. In one scene, a meeting with an elk is a direct homage to Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE. But like the theme of beauty, this film doesn’t mine the full potential of this element. Snow White’s power over nature is abandoned. I was hoping for her to lead an army of trolls, sprites and furry turtles to the queen’s castle, but alas all we get is a collection of battle techniques from a dozen period actioners.
In the end, SNOW WHITE is a fairly faithful re-imaging of the classic fairy tale. Yes, the plot could’ve mined the beauty theme further and developed Snow White as a more powerful hero and, yes, Charlize Theron’s evil queen doesn’t just eat hearts, but also the scenery from time to time, but the film still has some gravitas. Especially Theron. With a sequel already in the works this first installment is the base to build upon. The one place the film truly succeeds is visually. From the enchanted creatures in the dark forest to the warriors made of shards of mirror, the imagery will remain in my memory longer than the story. And for film that’s not a bad thing.