Those of you looking for a Grimm-hearted antidote to the fizzy whimsy of Mirror Mirror are in for a treat. Snow White And The Hunstman is a fairy tale by way of charnel house packed to the brim with horrors both real and imagined. But despite the elaborate costumes, dreamlike images and impressive array of fantastical settings, the plot does rest heavily on the slight shoulders of Kristen Stewart. And, surprise surprise, she’s not really up for the task. The familiar plot (evil queen, fair young princess, woodsman, apple, dwarves, etc.) has been given a spiky, feminist update. Charlize Theron’s Ravenna (stupid name, stupider bird motif) may have a magic mirror, but her motivation is less about vanity than it is about some twisted vengeance towards mankind and her magical powers that can literally be undone by “fairer blood.” When Stewart’s Snow White takes a desperate flight to The Forbidden Forest (a truly nightmarish setting), Chris Hemsworth’s Hunstman appears on the scene. He’s a grief-stricken widower with a drinking problem, a death wish and an axe. If this all sounds relentlessly dark, that’s because it is.
What follows is a bumpy road trip/quest movie that takes our heroes from dark forests to Amazonian river tribes to troll infested bridges. I was pretty happily along for the ride until our heroes tumbled into a fairy grotto straight out of Avatar, Aslan showed up in the shape of a CGI-stag and anointed Snow White as The One. You know, Neo. And, in the end, that’s what Snow White And The Hunstman feels like. A gorgeously rendered grab bag of Fantasy rip-offs. From the Battle of Helm’s Deep to the White Tree of Gondor, it’s impossible to keep track of all the nods and tropes. And while Fantasy has always been a genre that borrows heavily from itself, it’s possible, with sprightly performances or well-drawn characters, for the audience to lose itself in this quest and not think too hard about the fact that Harry Potter’s Horcrux locket bears more than a passing resemblance to Frodo’s ring. And that’s where this film falls short of the mark. Stewart’s subdued performance is, admittedly, a vast improvement on her sullen, hair-in-the face turns in Twilight and Adventureland. But this is a modern, spunky Snow White who’s asked to rally troops and storm the castle. Lip bites won’t carry the day. The drunken Huntsman character is obviously supposed to inject some much needed vigor into the proceedings and one can easily imagine their first casting choice, Johnny Depp, jack-sparrowing his way through forest, bridge and grotto. (Though the age difference would have added a significant ick factor to the love plot.) Hemsworth is a magnificent action figure, supremely charismatic and a deft hand with an axe. It’s lucky for Thor that axe choreography bears a striking resemblance to hammer choreography. Oh and he’s Scottish for some reason. That’s in the plus column. But even Hemsworth’s considerable presence cannot buoy Stewart.
It’s not until the dwarves show up two-thirds of the way through that things liven up. The dwarves are a magnificent array of every hobbity-faced actor not currently filming that Tolkein movie (Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Stevens, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost and a bored-looking Bob Hoskins) and their snappy rejoinders keep the third act from buckling. On the evil side of the aisle, Charlize Theron obviously threw herself into this role with every sinew in her magnificent body. This is a fully-rendered performance, from scalp to toenail. And her thunderous rages, when they come, are accompanied by the the most fearsome bloodshot eyes this side of a Disney cartoon. Theron is hampered, however, by some clumsily written monologues of how she’s been done wrong and handicapped by a slightly muddy british accent. Fans of 80s Sword and Sandal flicks might be even more taken with her henchman/brother, the icy Finn played with Rutger Hauerian chilliness by Sam Spruell. His platinum Prince Valiant Hair puts all of Ravenna’s elaborate coifs to shame. The cast is rounded out by the wholly unnecessary Sam Claflin as Snow’s childhood friend Will. An earnest archer who, when coupled with Stewart’s passive Swan-like presence, seems more like an obligatory Twilight nod to a love triangle than anything else.
But for all this. For all these problems. Was I not entertained? Oh I surely was. I only complain because this movie could have been truly great and was, instead, gorgeous and fun and, ultimately, just fine. First time director Rupert Sanders seems to have wanted to make a fairy tale-action-romance by way of the art house. The style is elegant (cinematographer Greig Fraser employed some of the same swinging out of focus close-ups that worked so brilliantly in Bright Star) but ultimately at odds with the blatant melodrama of the Queen’s tantrums and the efforts of our embattled heroes. The pacing often feels off (the last, interminable shot of our heroine being a prime example) and the screenplay very disjointed in tone. No surprise given that it’s a collaboration between the minds that brought you Drive and The Blindside. But the brightest star of the whole show is Tim Burton collaborator, Collen Atwood, who is responsible for the dazzling costuming. But even if this movie is the fairest of them all, it can’t have my heart. Snow White And The Huntsman is a lavish summer spectacle that wants to be a classic but, ultimately, ends up being a reminder of all the better movies you’ve seen.