(by Dustin Putman
Arriving less than three months after Tarsem's buoyant fractured fairy tale "Mirror Mirror," "Snow White and the Huntsman" makes clear that there is more than enough room to house two separate—and very different—revisionist takes on the Brothers Grimm's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" fable. Whereas the former film was coated in a candy-colored palette and embraced a cunning sense of humor, this one is conceived and mounted as a portentous action epic in the vein of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Director Rupert Sanders, making an impressive feature debut, belies his experience helming commercials by methodically and self-assuredly unfolding his story and characters without any tendency to go for erratic edits and style over substance. Oh, there's a lush aesthetic to behold—technically, every aspect is exquisite in its sheer detail and scale—but Sanders' filmmaking is almost blessedly old-school in the way that he pays just as much attention to the people his film is about as he does to the large-scale battle sequences and intricately woven special effects. When these arrive, they have a greater impact because the viewer has a reason to care and understand the stakes at hand. Article continues below
As a child, Snow White (Raffey Cassidy) lived in peace and happiness as the heir to her parents' royal throne. Governed by King Magnus (Noah Huntley) and his Queen (Liberty Ross), the land surrounding the castle prospered. Then tragedy struck when Snow's beloved mother grew ill and passed away. Stricken with grief, the King's mourning finally subsided when he rescued the gorgeous, blonde-haired Ravenna (Charlize Theron) from capture. They soon married, but the scheming Ravenna had ulterior motives, promptly murdering her new husband, entrapping Snow in a dungeon, and stealing the throne for herself. With her phantom army and patsy of a brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), by her side, Ravenna found glory in watching the world die around her as she continued to use whatever black magic—and youthful victims—she could find in order to keep from growing old. Some ten years later, Ravenna is outraged when her mirror tells her that someone is fairer than her—namely, a now-grown Snow White. Naturally, she wants her dead, but this desire turns out to be more challenging than expected when Snow manages to escape from the castle grounds and ends up in the Dark Forest. Called upon to do the malevolent Queen's evil bidding is the forlorn Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), promised to have his recently deceased wife back if he locates and kills Snow.
In finding its way to the screen, "Snow White and the Huntsman" gloriously imagines a whole new world, part fantasy and part medieval in spirit. Not content to shoot exteriors on big soundstages, director Rupert Sanders and broodingly atmospheric cinematographer Greig Fraser (2010's "Let Me In") make superb use of the rural landscapes and crashing shores of England and Wales, touched up and given an added breath of whimsical life by the visual wizards who seamlessly place hand-sized fairies right next to the woodland creatures of the forest. Feeding off one's own fear, Snow is accosted by trees that come alive, demons hiding in the bark, and branches that transform into slithering snakes. It's a ghastly feast for the eyes, as is just about every frame the movie has to offer, from the metallic hooded figure that pours out of the Queen's magic mirror to Ravenna's desperate shape-shifting attacks on Snow. All the while, James Newton Howard's (2012's "The Hunger Games") orchestral score is as rich and bold as one might hope without it ever becoming annoyingly bombastic.
Because this is, indeed, a take-off on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"—most indelibly made into Disney's 1937 animated classic—screenwriters Hossein Amini (2011's "Drive"), John Lee Hancock (2009's "The Blind Side") and Evan Daugherty remain faithful to the premise and paramount elements that make the story so memorable while tweaking the rest in inventive ways. In addition to the trio of leads—Snow, the Huntsman, and the villainous, beauty-obsessed Queen—there also are dwarves, eight in all, whom the protagonists befriend along the way. Former gold miners who saw their livelihood taken from them, they have their own reasons for overthrowing the current twisted dictatorial regime. In addition, the Greek chorus of animals in the forest are drawn to Snow in the same way they were in the Disney picture, and of course the poisoned apple makes an appearance, locking Snow in a lethal slumber that can only be broken by true love's kiss. Speaking of kiss, the romantic subplot is the film's most weak and wayward aspect because the man whom Snow is positioned to end up with is not the same one that she seems to genuinely love. Thus, when Snow is reunited with her childhood best friend, William (Sam Claflin), their scenes are filled with all of the spark and sexual wanting lacking in her relationship with the Huntsman.
For skeptics and cynics who can't seem to remember Kristen Stewart (2010's "The Runaways") was an accomplished actress long before the "Twilight" saga, they should be suitably silenced once they see her hold her own as a more complicated, fully developed version of Snow White. A far cry from Bella without a roll of the eye or touch of the hair in sight, Stewart embodies the put-upon princess as a willful, smart, but sheltered girl whose years of imprisonment have stolen her innocence. In her fight to survive while avenging her parents and gaining the confidence to lead her people, Stewart impresses, relaying all the shades of a character who thinks much more than she speaks. As the Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth (2012's "The Avengers") has a personality to go along with his ruggedly handsome features—a plus for sure—but not much is done with his role once he's in the thick of things helping Snow. There also simply isn't any detectable romantic chemistry between himself and Stewart, which one major plot point hinges upon. Much more effective in this department is Sam Claflin (2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), making Snow's now-grown friend from the past a memorable figure with far less screen time. Sinking slimily into the part of Ravenna's brother Finn, Sam Spruell (2009's "The Hurt Locker") not only acts as spiteful as need be, but gets extra points for a haircut and skin tone that give him an off-kilter albino resemblance. A cavalcade of normal-sized British thesps—among them, Ian McShane (2010's "Case 39"), Bob Hoskins (2009's "A Christmas Carol"), Ray Winstone (2011's "Hugo"), Nick Frost (2011's "Paul"), and Toby Jones (2011's "My Week with Marilyn")—are shrunken digitally to portray the dwarves, but it's so convincing one would never know it if they weren't already familiar with the actors.
And then there's Charlize Theron (2011's "Young Adult"), who once again has put an unforgettable stamp on an indelible screen creation not easily forgotten. An ice queen with a heart that wavers between frozen and aching, Theron's Ravenna is as wretched as they come even as she suggests the broken soul underneath, irrevocably affected by a childhood that placed outward beauty above any worthwhile qualities she might have had inside. This stands at contrast with Snow's own upbringing, where she was known for her "defiant spirit" as much as she was for her exterior attractiveness. Theron, wavering between blemish-free and witheringly ancient depending on how much magic she's used and how many people she's slaughtered at any given time, chews the scenery while remaining all too real. When she gets worked up and screams (which is often), don't be surprised if you find yourself worrying that the actress might burst a blood vessel. Whether she's prancing around in her ravishing couture, dousing herself in a milk bath, plucking the hearts out of birds and eating them with her metal talons, or desperately trying to pull herself together following a transformation into a flock of ravens that leaves several of them dead or badly injured, Theron is magnificent, in full control of a witchy woman who's as pathetic and sad as she is wicked.
Following a month where each Friday saw the release of a summer tentpole that didn't live up to its potential (i.e., the good but not great "The Avengers," the derivative "Battleship," the tired "Men in Black 3"), "Snow White and the Huntsman" gets June off to an appropriately sizzling start. Full of large-scale thrills and action set-pieces in between enough attention to character to give the story emotion and weight, the film is clean, coherent—there is no rapid-fire editing, thank you very much—and able to still put a little awe onto viewers' faces by way of imagination and spectacle. Trouble spots are few and far between; the closing scenes are lacking the catharsis they should have had—in lieu of a parting smile, Snow really ought to have let loose with a song-and-dance number like her counterpart in "Mirror Mirror" did—and, again, the relationship between her and the Huntsman is more or less a non-starter. Otherwise, this is close to spellbinding as entertainment, simultaneously beautiful and gritty, threateningly dark as well as fantastical. When it comes to fairy tales, half the battle is in the creation of a winning hero or heroine and a bull's-eye adversary. "Snow White and the Huntsman" understands this, then outdoes itself.