I wouldn’t have thought of myself ever really checking out this movie out of self-ambition. However, I came across a video review of it from a usually trusted source. So, I gave it an honest chance, and to my pleasant surprise, I did indeed enjoy this movie a great deal. There are two main reasons why I write reviews. The first is because I love film in many of its forms, and I enjoy sharing my passions for it. The second is to open up others to films that I feel are worth discovering, and in turn, I enjoy other people opening up my horizons to new, good films. So, it’s great when others do the same for me. With Snow White & The Huntsman, there’s a really solid fantasy picture here worth giving a chance to.
Years ago, the noble King Magnus fell prey to the enchantment of the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who killed him and took reign over his kingdom. Sustained by draining the life from others, Queen Ravenna remains forever young and beautiful, but the King’s daughter, left alive and imprisoned, has now come of age as the fairest of all in the land to threaten this darkness. Snow White (Kristen Stewart) soon escapes the castle, and the Queen sends a rugged Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. However, the Huntsman soon joins with Snow White on a journey to see her father’s kingdom reclaimed through a land of treacherous enemies.
While watching this, I was really pleased that it kept selling me on it all the way through. I liked the narration by the Huntsman who gracefully sets up the details of this story taking us through Snow White’s youth and the kingdom’s fall. The movie is tightly paced, propelling its story forward in a lean matter, but still with plenty of meat to the characters and their stories. In fact, despite watching the extended edition while writing this review, the film seemed to move along even faster than on my first viewing of the theatrical cut. The extended version has a few good, new scenes that add a little extra depth and detail here and there. There is a scene between the Huntsman and William, Snow White’s childhood friend and archer, in the extended cut that better sets up and pays off another scene with the obligatory poison apple. Of course, we also get some very good action sequences, which are also tight and to the point. They exist long enough to serve their purpose, and are solidly satisfying and exciting. It all feels real and consequential. The battles are never taken lightly, and there are casualties beyond just the obligatory background soldiers.
Now, really looking at this, I feel this is a fantasy film that could’ve hit in the 1980’s next to Highlander or Excalibur. This movie has some stunning imagery and inspired cinematography. Early on, I love how bold the blood reds are. They standout as really symbolic. Overall, this film has grit, murkiness, and dramatic weight. Many scenes are smoky and moody. It creates a tangible, grounded world that still allows for the fantastical to live and breathe. It’s a dark world reflecting the grim bleakness the Queen has cast over it, and that just creates a very engaging look for me. It has a lot of that same texture found in The Lord of the Rings movies, but with more of its own gritty mystical atmosphere and mood. Snow White and the Huntsman is a really beautifully shot film helmed by a director who clearly has vision.
Surely, for some, Kristen Stewart would be an obstacle for them due to her work in the Twilight movies. I have not subjected myself to those films for many reasons, but I believe this film shows that sometimes it’s not the actor but the material that should be questioned. I am very pleased to state that Kristen Stewart does a very wonderful job here. It did not take me long to see that she was a young woman of admirable talent. There is a lot of depth to this character, and there is a strong arc for her that Kristen Stewart conveys remarkably well. The fear is something she sells very realistically early on, but there is a hope and strength that grows out of that fear. As Snow White progresses through this adventure, you see her mature into a stronger, more active character. There is subtlety and beauty to what Stewart accomplishes here. She really shows a lot of heart, warmth, but also a tinge of sorrow along the way. And indeed, she has touching chemistry with Chris Hemsworth which also really drives this film forward on many great levels.
I am really a believer that Chris Hemsworth is on the verge of having an amazing career. While my exposure to him has been very minimal outside of Thor, he continues to demonstrate a powerful presence and great depth of talent in everything he does. Clearly, he handles the physicality here greatly. The Huntsman surely has his humor stemming from his attitude and Hemsworth’s rich charisma. Yet, there is a heartbreak to him stemming from being a widower, and Hemsworth really digs deep inside to evoke those potentially tear-jerking emotions. It’s a very dimensional character backed by a performance that quickly and easily endears himself to an audience. The only off thing comes from his accent, which I couldn’t place, but turns out it was supposed to be Scottish. In the least, he puts forth more effort into his accent than Sean Connery has with any other accent in his entire career.
Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the evil Queen Ravenna. She plays it as someone on the frayed ends of manic obsession. Ravenna is insanely consumed with her outward beauty, but surely, inside, she is a horrible monster. Theron has more than proven her talent over the years, and this is an absolutely excellent performances. There is a tragic quality to this twisted character, and you see that soaked into every fiber of Theron’s performance. There’s complexity and depth to her that runs very deep. However, what sells it all the most is simply her eyes. The glaring, crazed, unflinching stare is downright scary. You can see just how far off the deep end she is between that and her explosive rants. Theron even tore a stomach muscle because she was screaming so intensely, and I can believe it.
And there are still dwarves in this tale. These roles are filled by great actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone, among others. The same sort of techniques used for similar smaller statured characters in The Lord of the Rings films were used here, and done so with seamless results. Hoskins is essentially their leader, and has the most dialogue. However, while his line deliveries are quite good, I found it odd that he was practically stone-faced throughout. I don’t think he registered a single actual facial expression in his screentime. Regardless, the dwarves tend to add the needed levity to the heavier, dramatic story being told. They never make things silly, just a little fun and light-hearted at times in the latter half of the movie.
I would say that the only segment of the film that didn’t wholly appeal to me was the latter half of the Fairy Sanctuary. This is the land that has been untouched by Ravenna’s darkness, and it is flourishing with a lush landscape and fantastical wonders. However, there’s just a lot of peculiar CGI woodland creatures that simply weren’t to my liking. With so much gritty realism in the film, this just felt pushed too deeply into the vibrant, slightly cartoonish fantastical realm, but it’s not long before it shifts back into the dark, grittiness.
This does bring up the issue of the digital effects. Most are really good, especially in the Dark Forest with all the almost pitch black creatures that slither and crawl out of the darkness, but in the Fairy Sanctuary, it is very obvious CGI that feels like it came out of another film. That’s another reason why that sequence didn’t work too well for me. Also, the withering age make-up on Charlize Theron is especially good, but some of the more elaborate morphing effects shots on her have room for improvement. Generally, the digital effects are fairly good with some really good stuff, but there is some more prominently on display work that doesn’t come off all that well. Thankfully, this film has very practical stunt work, and the realistic locations like the castles were actually built for the film. The filmmakers didn’t rely on digital matte paintings.
This film, while taking a new approach to the material, still hits all the classic beats of the Snow White story, but uses them to propel this story into larger territory. The poison apple from Ravenna to Snow White gives Hemsworth his best scene pouring out his heart over the dead Snow White. When she returns from death, it inspires and motivates herself and everyone else to take up arms and charge into battle. Kristen Stewart delivers a strong, inspirational, rallying speech to these people The fire and passion she projects is great. It is the moment where the character comes into her own, and becomes a leader to take back the kingdom that was stolen from her father. Snow White and The Huntsman still has that fairy tale simplicity, but adds in significant depth to mature the content, which is what makes it work so well. Every character has their sense of realism and dimensionality, and they serve both the gritty realism and the fantastical elements of the movie.
This film’s exciting, entertaining, it has a good, solid story, fine substance, satisfying character arcs, and overall, just has a great look to it. Also, from the opening logos to the end credits, the score is just enveloping and moody. That comes as no surprise from James Newton Howard, one of the best film score composers around today. Directed Rupert Sanders simply does a very solid job with this material, and hones his actors into bringing this darker fantasy take to life. I would say this is a hell of a good feature film directorial debut, and I hope he continues to deliver this kind of tight, cohesive quality. I know a sequel has already been planned, and while there’s not much precedent for further Snow White adventures, I will be eagerly interested to see what story these filmmakers conceive for it. There’s a great set of characters here that were well developed and filled by strong, rich talents. So, there is potential there, but until then, I will be happy to revisit this adventure quite a few times. I highly recommend it!
The marketing for Thor was real iffy. Including a very uninspired poster campaign, it was very hard to tell from trailers and TV spots if the film worked balancing out drama, humor, and action along with the stark contrasts of our world and the fantastical realm of Asgard. For me, I feel most films today are not marketed well or appropriately. It seems more like the film has to adhere to what they want to market instead of the marketing adhering to what the film is. Either that, or the advertising firm is a bunch of hacks who don’t know how to capture what’s special about the property. Regardless, the trailers and TV spots didn’t sell me enough on the film to run out to theatres. Later in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I ran out to see it, and highly enjoy it. However, some major plot points harkened back to the mythology of Thor,and so, I got the urge to see it if only to fill in any gaps that I was not aware of. It was too late to catch it in theatres, and so, the DVD has arrived to help me out. Simply said, I very much like this movie, and was highly satisfied at the end. Of course, for those unaware, here is the obligatory synopsis.
Amongst the nine realms, the forces of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and the icy realm of Jotunheim (pronounced Yodenheim) populated by the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore) have been enemies for countless ages. After a great battle in Norway, 965 A.D., Odin and his courageous warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters. Many years later, Odin’s sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grow to manhood, and while Thor is the great warrior ready to be granted the throne of Asgard, Loki is a mischievous practioners of magic and illusion. However, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace and attempt to retrieve the Casket. They fail, but subsequent actions in retaliation of this by the impulsive and battle-hungry Thor and his warrior friends leave Odin in contempt of his oldest son. As punishment, he banishes Thor to the realm of Earth, and relieves him of his greatest weapon and source of his power, the hammer Mjolnir. From here on, the hammer and its power can only be wielded by one who is worthy of the power of Thor. Thus, Thor must go through an evolution of character to prove himself worthy of being the man he needs to become. On Earth, he comes into the graces of the young and passionate Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her astrophysicist team. Jane gradually forms a caring relationship with the wayward son of Odin. Meanwhile, Loki uncovers long held secrets, and plots his own rule over Asgard. Amidst this, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive to examine and quarantine the downed Mjolnir which is embedded in stone like Excalibur waiting for its future king to wield it.
There is so much I could talk about here, but perhaps the best, most apprehensive aspect, is how all these different realms of existence are handled and balanced out. Frankly, I think Kenneth Branagh succeeded in doing what very few probably could have done. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim are wonderful. They establish the grandeur of the society that Thor comes from. He is used to a world of honor and glory. A place ruled by gods that is magnificent in its visual spectacle. The production design is fantastic here, and the realization of it all in CGI and set design is quite remarkable. In Asgard, people speak with large, proud voices and passionate words of an extraordinary culture, and it all fits, it all works in this realm of gods. When Thor is dropped to Earth, literally, he still acts this way, but to Hemsworth’s credit, I think it’s his charm that makes it all endearing to me. It does comes off comically, but I feel Branagh and Hemsworth make it work because of that charm. They handle Thor with gallant heart and compassion instead of some dumb brute who just doesn’t get it. I, personally, did not find one joke misplaced, mistimed, or out of character. Unlike in Green Lantern where all the Earth scenes were mishandled, poorly executed dead weight, and all the CGI’d otherworldly sequences were the real juice, Thor strikes the balance correctly. This is also due to the plot being tightly crafted to keep the pace up, the emotional threads alive, and the plotline or character relationships developing throughout. Branagh and his editor kept this a lean film from beginning to end.
The only detracting element of the film, for me, and what could’ve been used to make the Earth and Asgard realms stylistically different was the camera work. The biggest gripe is the obscene, excessive use of Dutch angles throughout the film. Usually, a Dutch angle is used to give a scene or the filmed subject an off-kilter feeling. Here, it is used without an intended effect. Branagh’s audio commentary on the DVD gives insight into this choice. These are angles and compositions that were frequently used in the comics he saw and read. So, he intended to translate that onto the screen. He says that there was a concern that he may have been overdoing it, and I believe that concern was warranted. The simple fact is that it’s annoying, and has no positive effect on the shots or scenes it’s used in. There are Dutch angles used on crane shots, dolly shots, steadi-cam shots, static shots, and so on. It was very distracting to me since I am more aware of it than most people likely are due to me being a filmmaker. If Branagh used this style for just the Asgard sequences, and stuck to a more natural style of framing and composition for the Earth scenes, I think that would have enhanced the stylistic differences between the different worlds. As it is, I think it’s exceptionally distracting because it is used with no real storytelling purpose in mind.
Now, where these Marvel Studios films have mostly excelled is in the casting. Attracting some higher grade talents to fill these modern mythological roles is something that Richard Donner started with Superman: The Movie over thirty years ago. Hemsworth is a slight exception to Robert Downey, Jr. and Edward Norton in terms of high profile talent, but he inhabits the dimensional role of Thor impressively well. Again, his compassionate charm carries much of the character through, and allows an audience to connect with his personality. He starts out as a temperamental, hot headed young warrior in search of battle over wisdom, but as the film progresses, more of his heart develops to show his depth. None of us can really relate to the situation he’s in or the cosmic forces he’s battling against, and so, making the man and his emotional conflict relatable is the key. When he turns on the action hero mojo, he continues to impress. Hemsworth clearly worked out for many long months to create the physique of a god, worthy of myth and legend. Furthermore, it is not easy to hold up your end of a scene opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Chris Hemsworth did so with great success. I think that says a good deal about how Branagh handles his actors, and helps them to balance their drama out. However, I will take no credit away from Hemsworth because he greatly displays his wide range, powerful screen presence, and passionate commitment to his role. And of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins really delivers well as Odin. Who else do you get to play a role filled with this breadth of wisdom, power, compassion, and fatherly weight? Hopkins brings a definite sense of history and wisdom with him. He exudes strength, commands respect, but also demonstrates the moments of Odin’s weary age well. He is also a hero of legend that does what he does because he is a good father, and knows what his son must go through to become the man he wishes to be.
The darker side of the spectrum is occupied by Tom Hiddleston as Loki. What could’ve easily been a whiny character is handled with a fine breadth of dimension and intelligence. Deceit and bitterness are what forge his character, and they live and breathe in an actor able to turn those elements back around as a weapon for Loki. As others have deceived and used him, so he does to others in order to gain the power and authority he feels entitled to. Hiddleston handles Loki’s devious nature quite well like a puppet master manipulating his pawns across a chess board to service his ultimate goals. There is also the leader of the Frost Giants, Laufey, portrayed by Colm Feore. Granted, the man is covered by a great deal of make-up and prosthetics, and his voice gets some post-production treatment. However, Feore plays the darkly evil role subtlety. A sullen, methodical villain that is not easily intimidated, and being a giant, does not back down from a challenger. He achieves a lot by doing so little. He uses the make-up to sell the character, but even without it, there would still be a chilling, memorable performance.
Natalie Portman has more than proven her worth as an exceptional acting talent over the last 15-20 years. Sometimes, it’s hard to articulate what makes a great performance. People get wrapped up in the grandiose awards show displays of performances, but great acting can be defined in many different aspects. Here, Natalie portrays a role that is more subtle and graceful to win over an audience’s heart. Maybe it’s just me being struck by how much more beautiful she has become over time, but I was very engaged by her in this movie. Likely, it’s because she can project so much genuine, honest emotion on screen that it easily ensnares me. Portman holds her ground well opposite Hemsworth, and their chemistry is very, very good. As Jane Foster, Natalie projects passion, conviction, heart, and warmth here. Jane is very enthusiastic about what she does, and the mystery around Thor is something she finds charmingly compelling. She slowly involves herself more and more in his well being, and desires to know more about this peculiar stranger. Their relationship slowly develops to a very honest and heartfelt romantic connection. Jane’s associates allow for some good dynamics to bounce off of to give the character some context. Portman really sells everything well, and at the end of the film, I truly feel hopeful for Thor and Jane Foster to reunite.
Again, I feel the production design of Thor is really great. I was in real awe of the innovation and grandeur of Asgard. There are no limits to this realm. It is fantastical beyond known logic. Branagh and his team really create a unique, colorful world worthy of legend, and the costuming reflects that creativity and detail. The film doesn’t burn any unnecessary time away showing it off either. On the flip side, there’s not much to say about the Earth scenes. It’s a small town in New Mexico, and that feeling is captured well.
The visual effects, for the most part, are very well done. There are moments or elements that don’t sell quite as well as others. When the Destroyer (a fire spewing mechanical monster from Asgard) comes to Earth, the CGI construct does feel a little too artificial at times, but it’s mostly during its interaction with its live action counterparts. I was glad that the Asgard scenes did not feel cheap. They took a lot of time and attention to detail to make them hold up strongly throughout the film. They are marvelous to behold. The effects, like the production design, service the story and characters instead of overwhelming them. That’s what visual effects are meant to do, and far too many filmmakers have forgotten that. I’m glad to know that Kenneth Branagh is not counted among those filmmakers. I’m not a supporter of 3D, and seeing this firstly on DVD, doesn’t even give me the option to watch it as such. So, all my impressions of the film’s visuals are based on the traditional 2D viewing.
I’m also glad to be reassured that Branagh never degrades the film down to shaky cam action sequences. They are shot with a good sense of geography and composition so that an audience can follow the scene competently. Really, aside from those aforementioned Dutch angles, the film is shot with a great deal of emotion and epic stature. The cinematography does have character. The shots don’t just capture the personality of the performers, but they enhance them with how they captures them. Much of the same compliments can be translated to the vibrant, powerful score by Patrick Doyle.
I feel the brightest praise I can give this film is the fact that when Thor finally reclaims his power, the thunder roars, and the lightning strikes, I was as choked up with momentous enthusiasm as I am during the helicopter rescue scene in Superman: The Movie. The ascension of Thor’s greatness has reached a level equal to that rousing moment in the first blockbuster superhero film for me. Perhaps that is only me, but I was so very entertained and engaged with this film to have that sort of emotional reaction. What that really means is that the film was successful in every storytelling aspect from direction to acting to cinematography to music and beyond. It made me feel for this hero, his journey, and his triumphs.
While the marketing left something to be desired in convincing me of the film’s quality, the actual film itself leaves no doubt behind. It’s been laborious writing this review because there’s so much to praise that I didn’t want to leave anything significant out, but I had to limit myself to not scouring every single performer or detail. Simply said, in this especially long review, is that Thor is another big win for Marvel Studios. I’ve enjoyed all these films leading up to The Avenger including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man lit the torch, and while not every entry has been perfect, there has not been enough of a misstep to derail the cinematic plan that Marvel Studios has been carefully planning. So, with a man I have a lot of confidence in directing the picture, Joss Whedon, I feel that climactic movie will be a great achievement. I also highly look forward to what might be crafted for a direct sequel to Thor.