Ready for a gritty reboot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves starring Kirsten Stewart and Chris Hemsworth? No? I know what you mean. I feel like this movie had already been made by Hollywood just a few months ago. But here we are, and you know what? Snow White and the Huntsman is actually a pretty good film. It suffers from a laborious screenplay and uneven acting performances, but there’s enough gorgeous spectacle here to keep all but the most cynical cinema goers mildly satisfied.
We all know the general contours of the fairy tale by now. A vain and wicked queen lords over a medieval kingdom with an iron fist. She carriers a talking mirror around with her who confirms that she is the most beautiful woman in the land, until one day a fair maiden commits the sin of turning seventeen. The jealous queen hires a huntsman to retrieve the girl; he fails. The queen attempts to murder the girl by feeding her a poisoned apple, but Prince Charming eventually arrives and rectifies everything. The queen is killed for being old and a bitch.
Anyway, I probably got some of that wrong. Those general elements are present in almost every telling of Snow White, but no two tellings are ever the same. For instance, in this movie, the huntsman, played by Thor himself, turns out to be Snow White’s savior and one true love. There are actually eight dwarves (but one of them gets bumped off, so they become seven), and they don’t whistle why they work, but instead drink mead and steal things.
Snow White and the Huntsman may be director Rupert Sanders’ first feature length film, but he generally seems to know what he’s doing. The movie is beautiful to behold and the action flows smoothly, but mediocre writing and bad acting somewhat hamstring the production.
Charlize Theron gives arguably the worst performance of her career here as the evil queen. She hams her way through every scene, alternating between over-enunciating every syllable of her dialogue in a faux English accent and screeching like a banshee. Theron seems to be channeling Faye Dunaway channeling Joan Crawford, which is odd. Her performance is high camp, and more screen time is given to her than any other individual actor, but every other element of Snow White and the Huntsman is relatively gritty and low key.
I’m pretty sure I understand the logic that went into the decision to cast Theron and emphasize her role in the movie. It’s just that the plan backfired horribly. Kristen Stewart is the star of the film. And while her name on a marquee brings teenage girls to theaters because of her connection to Twilight, she’s also critically reviled because of her performance in Twilight. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the filmmakers would want to temper any negative criticism of Stewart by hiring a cast of talented veterans to carry her. They get to have their shiny red apple and eat it too.
The funny thing is that Kristen Stewart’s approach to acting, or rather non-acting, is perfect for this sort of movie. Snow White and the Huntsman is chock full of spectacle and gorgeous visuals; it’s the sort of film that benefits when the actors choose to blend into the scenery rather than chew on it. The castles are amazingly grandiose; the dark forest is suitably grim and foreboding; the sanctuary where Snow White temporarily finds refuge from the queen is lush and vibrant. The dwarves and the fantastical creatures that populate Snow White’s kingdom are a triumph of modern CGI and make up effects.
Passages of Snow White and the Huntsman remind me of some of the great fantasy movies of the ‘80s like The Princess Bride and The Never Ending Story. However, the story also meanders and drags on too long, and the film could have benefited from a twenty minute shave. When the movie narrows in on Snow White, the dwarves, and the huntsman traveling through a brilliantly realized fantasy world it is great. When it attempts to transform into a bland Lord of the Rings clone it’s a total bore. I don’t remember an army of knights battling demons made of obsidian in the original fairy tale, but I guess we can just chalk that up to Peter Jackson’s legacy in Hollywood.
Prior to the release of Lord of the Rings, Hollywood fantasy movies could be relatively small affairs; after Lord of the Rings, every fantasy movie is required by law to have at least two major battle scenes featuring faceless soldiers slamming into each other. And sure enough, the screenwriters have tortured and teased the original Snow White source material as much as possible to make room for prolonged battle sequences that add absolutely nothing to the film. Here we have Snow White discarding her dress for a suit of plate mail and riding into armed combat at the front of a formation of trained soldiers. Even Snow White isn’t safe from the Lord of the Rings effect, I suppose.