Snow White sure has come a long way since Disney. From perky but bland cartoon to beautiful but bland live action cartoon earlier this year (MIRROR MIRROR) and now somnambulistic but bland live action corpse thanks to Kristen Stewart, she of the vacant, glassy-eyed, open-mouth school of acting. So it’s no surprise that director Rupert Sanders’s menacing take on the fairy tale—SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN—basically ignores its title and focuses more on Charlize Theron’s evil queen. And what a queen she is—beautiful and endowed with the power to steal youth, all decked out in fabulous gowns. It’s like a gay man’s wet dream.
In addition to those amazing dresses, SNOW WHITE gives us some clever special effects and Chris Hemsworth breathes some much needed life into the film, proving he is an enjoyable onscreen presence even when he’s not wielding Thor’s hammer. But the four credited screenwriters saddle the characters, particularly poor Charlize, with some ridiculous dialogue. And for all its creative visual style, Sanders supplies a movie that is made up of singular moments—interesting though many of them are—that never quite coalesce into an engaging, cohesive film. Still, all that visual creativity gives James Newton Howard the chance to create his own menacing musical take on the oft-told tale.
This is not your childhood Snow White and as such Howard’s musical palette is appropriately dark and brooding. A tender French horn theme for Snow White begins the film and the album. As the score progresses, the theme switches keys to major, gaining in power and military might as the character steps into the battle royal role she was born to play.
In “I’ll Take Your Throne,” INCEPTION-like brass chords belch out the dying breaths of the King followed by the Queen’s theme in an eerie series of ascending violin harmonics. The interplay of the violin and cello duet in “You Failed Me Finn” underscores the Queen’s creepy relationship with her brother (Sam Spruell).
The score is most effective, especially within the film, in the action cues where Howard unleashes the primal musical forces. Snow White escapes from the tower to furious sixteenth notes, a repetitive six-note motif, contemporary percussion riffs and sonic textures. She flees on the “White Horse” into the evils of the Dark Forest accompanied by tribal percussion and French horn glissandi.
Click Track: Escape from the Tower
Once Snow White meets the dwarfs and enters Sanctuary, the film really goes off the rails. Creepy little fairies, mushrooms with eyes (which are even more disturbing) and the unnecessary presence of the dwarves indicate a distinct shift in tone from this point forward. If these sequences aren’t particularly magical, Howard’s music is. A bright new theme, major-key chord progressions and ethereal chorus set the proper tone. When Snow White meets the magical “White Hart” stag, Howard’s music is particularly moving. The sense of wonder ascends higher and higher until the thwack of a deadly arrow unleashes gnashing, metallic harmonies as Finn’s men attack.
Click Track: White Hart
In “Death Favors No Man,” Snow White’s obligatory BRAVEHEART speech to the troops, Howard downplays the moment in the orchestra, conveying far more power in the sustained string chords than Stewart’s awkward line reading. (Joan of Arc she ain’t.) In “Warriors on the Beach,” Howard intones the “Dies irae” in the chorus over a pulsating action cue as Snow White and her men attack the castle.
The album includes the Celtic-flavored song “Gone,” written and sung by Ioanna Gika over the death of the dwarf Gus (Brian Gleeson). Florence + The Machine shatter the mood of the regal orchestral finale with the end title song “Breath of Life.” Howard arranged the orchestra and choir for the song, which somewhat ties it into the two hours of music preceding it, but it still feels out of place.
Howard’s score oddly enough is not particularly effective in the film. The music is there, totally appropriate for the creative style and the story. So what happened? I can only blame the director. That Howard’s music offers so much more on its own speaks to its inherent level of craft, which is somehow unfortunately lost onscreen. At turns haunting, rousing and magical, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is a score that deserves to be remembered far longer than the forgettable film it accompanies.