June 6, 2012 was the 79th anniversary of the first drive-in movie. The first drive-in opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey and the first film was Wives Beware. Seventy-nine years later, I was at the West Wind Drive-In in Reno to watch a doubleheader of Snow White and the Huntsman and Battleship, an odd pairing of films that ended up complimenting each other rather well.
I love the drive-in; I remember seeing Star Wars for the first time at a drive-in, as me and my brother sat in the back seat of my dad’s Ford Granada. I wasn’t even old enough to be in kindergarten, yet I can remember all kinds of things from that night. Not just the movie but the snack bar, the playground, the clunky metal speaker you had to attach to your windows, and even the bathrooms. I love that every drive-in I’ve been in over the years (admittedly, which probably barely touches double digits) seems stuck in the ’50s.
Even last night, in a drive-in with four screens going, the snack bar and bathrooms don’t look like they’ve been updated in at least four decades. (Though they were clean, which is the important thing.) The prices were reasonable and the popcorn was really tasty – as long as you got a piece that had been hit by the butter.
Both Snow White and Battleship are heavy on CGI spectacle, but they use the technology differently; in Snow White, it’s done to enhance the natural world while in Battleship, it’s done to enhance the technological gang-bang going on between the Navy and the alien ships. While the drive-in experience doesn’t provide the best screen experience, both films looked beautiful, and it’s to the credit of all the CGI artists involved that these films looked so different from one another, but both were still beautifully rendered.
While both films were more hit than miss, they moved in opposite directions; Snow White started strong and then sort of petered out, while Battleship started out as horribly derivative and predictable as you can imagine and then somehow rebounded into a highly enjoyable second half.
It’s fine that it wants to take itself seriously; I admire the attempt at what director Rupert Sanders is attempting, but if you’re going to send a movie out to the public in the summer and you’re going to play things this seriously, you’d better deliver something truly special.
Everyone in it is dour. Snow (Kristen Stewart) is understandably miserable after being trapped in a tower prison while her stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron) rules the kingdom after murdering Snow’s dad. Ravenna doesn’t have much fun because she’s obsessed with staying young and beautiful, which means she’s always killing young people to regenerate herself. Her brother Finn (Sam Spruell) is eternally grumpy because the worst haircut in the kingdom. The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) isn’t a happy because because he’s in debt, and he’s a drunkard, and his life has been in a downward spiral because his wife was murdered by the Queen’s forces.
After Snow escapes and Ravenna forces the Huntsman to get her back, and the Huntsman tells Finn to go screw and promises to get Snow to a castle where the opposition forces are hanging out, the two of them rush through the Dark Woods meeting all sorts of unhappy people: a troll, an all-woman sanctuary shrouded by fog, and the dwarves, who are not called Grumpy and Dopey, but instead names such as Beith (Ian McShane) and Gort (Ray Winstone).
Snow White and the Huntsman is so set on taking itself seriously that’s there no wink to the audience with the dwarves beyond one reference someone makes to whistling. No, these dwarves wandered out of Middle-earth at some point and got lost in the Dark Forest. It’s a shame because the film needs some levity, and the dwarves could have provided it.
The Hunger Games is not a bucket of chuckle monkeys, either, but that film does a much better job lightening the mood from time to time. Even in serious films you need to provide a few beats for the audience to catch their breath and exhale or open up another line of thought, and Snow White never does that.
Truthfully, the film fails all over the narrative board. While the basic structure is perfectly sound, it’s the little decisions that catch up with the film. The relationship between Snow and the Huntsman never comes together. It’s his kiss that awakens her from Ravenna’s poison apple spell, but there isn’t a romance between them. After his drunken monologue that ends with the kiss that awakens her, the Huntsman’s role is severely diminished.
The movie is a chase film during the middle portion as Finn and the Queen’s men hunt Snow down, but Sanders utterly fails to make them a consistent threat. If you’ve got pursuers, you need to feel their presence pushing the protagonists forward (like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), but I never felt that threat. Instead, they show up every so often and shoot people.
The best scene comes after they’ve met the dwarves. Snow follows some fairies into a clearing in the woods, and all the animals are drawn to her. We get honest-to-goodness beauty here, and it’s a much needed change of pace from all the greys and browns that permeate the film.
Snow has been brought before the White Hart, who blesses her before getting shot by Finn’s men. There’s a real sense of Snow as the woman who can make the world a better place, and in a few minutes of seeing rabbits look cute and stare at her we get a better sense of her importance than in all the times people tell us she’s important.
Show, don’t tell, kids.
Unfortunately, no one in the film is really called up to act. Kristen Stewart simply has to look pained and driven, Hemsworth has to breathe hard and swing an axe, and Theron has to look gorgeous and proclaim death. They all manage this but I wish they had more to do. I wish that the people and animals and trolls whose lives Snow touched during her chase through the Dark Forest came back and fought with her at the end, but they don’t.
Snow White could have been something much more with a defter narrative touch and some brighter moments.
If I was going back to the movie theater tomorrow, I’d probably pick watching Battleship over Snow White, but I have a greater fondness for what Snow White is attempting.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the reason why, either, because while Battleship perfectly understood what it’s here for, Snow White takes itself way too seriously for a summer movie experience. Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a November film. It just stubbornly refuses to let us have any fun.
Do not eat apples given to you by witches. You don't know where they've been.