Phantom armies. Hulking trolls. A female warrior who communes with forest spirits. These may not be the visions one conjures when hearing the title Snow White and the Huntsman, but then this version of the tale isn’t your typical outing. By casting Kristen Stewart as the titular female and Chris Hemsworth as the titular male, the studio has aimed the film at a Twilight style fan-base. First time director Rupert Sanders and the scriptwriters have other ideas, crafting a moody throwback to sword and sorcery films of the 1980s while injecting a rugged beauty into the hidden, shadow parts of the classic Snow White story.
Far darker than its competition—Tarsem Singh’s amiable but slight Mirror, Mirror—this Snow White isn’t afraid of a little deconstruction and mythic subterfuge. Huntsman recasts its evil queen as a bitter feminist whose tyranny began the moment she decided she wouldn’t be tromped on by vile rulers. Stewart’s Snow White is no match for Theron’s Ravenna, but when the young girl escapes from the castle, the film splits up their paths. This leaves Ravenna to plotting Snow’s downfall with the help of her phantasmal mirror—a spectre that may exist only in her fractured psyche—while a rugged, inebriated huntsman (Hemsworth) tracks the pale, black-haired beauty through the dark forest. While on the lam, Snow learns of her unique destiny as the potential savior of not only the kingdom, but the earth around it. A pair of mischievous sprites and a gaggle of eight (oh, here comes an arrow! Nevermind, seven!) dwarves serve as Snow’s welcoming party, preparing her to be the leader who will wipe Ravenna’s darkness from the land.
Although there’s context and depth lacking in the writing and dialogue, the performers bring their best to the table, led and out-acted by Charlize Theron. Theron is tremendously entertaining as the frosty and psychologically damaged stepmother who is also a heart-eating witch. She oozes a vulnerable but potent sensuality, alternating between hilariously campy and quietly sinister with a mere twist of the lips. Her Ravenna is a monster with multiple layers and an animal’s cunning, hunting Snow with a merciless, pragmatic kind of cruelty. Stewart is nearly novel as Snow, but she’s been sulking away in the Twilight franchise for so long that she interprets each deeper emotion as a variation on a pout. Here’s angry pout, worried pout, slightly aroused but on the run and covered in mud pout. This diminishes the character as written, leaving with her not nearly enough impact to lead the dwarves, let alone an entire army of soldiers. Hemsworth is full of swagger and dark humor, but his role has been presumably gutted, leaving just an Aragorn wannabe in the wake. He cuts a heroic figure but the movie robs him of any opportunity to strike up chemistry with Stewart or camaraderie with the dwarves.
Snow White is a visual experience more than anything else, augmenting its slender action story with atmospheric, gothic style. Although its narrative arc is easily telegraphed, we are treated to a wonderland of sights and sounds that take on a dark majesty because of the realism with which they have been rendered. The dark forest is a tangled mass of broken nature, poisoned by the queen’s hate and full of elegant but nightmarish details. A spore-fueled hallucination takes Snow through the various environmental levels of the wood; there’s a forest floor crawling with beetles, tree branches that transform into snakes, a canopy laden with bat-winged harpies and a hillside containing a troll that would make Guillermo Del Toro weep with joy. Contrasted against this is another outdoor fantasia occupied by the dwarves, which melds the old-world majesty of the original tales with the kitschy whimsy of Disney. Animals frolic together, mushrooms peer out with cyclopean eyes, and at the center of the forest, stands a great white stag with stoic, branching antlers. This magical tableau is so perfectly detailed that it moves us in a way that the story and characters do not.
The optical treats do not end with the various settings, but extend to the costuming and dramatically staged battle scenes. Ravena and her mantle of crows that melt away into a puddle of black oil are probably my favorite character adornment, but Hemsworth isn’t lying when he says that Stewart looks good in chain mail; awkward, yes, but she wears it with a purpose and a kind of determined gawkiness which makes it feel more real. The dwarves are played by actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan and the special effects used to make them diminutive are fine indeed. If the dialogue is sparse and rather perfunctory, then it is the sumptuous eye candy that makes up the dramatic difference. Thanks to cinematograherGreig Fraser the imagery is heavy with the kind of burnished grandeur we usually associate with Ridley Scott.
Sanders has some of that same innate understanding of scene staging and he’s clearly interested in the more visceral aspects of film as a medium. He’s also got a great sense of how to use visual effects and choreograph battle sequences so they make the carnage resonate. There are more than a few similarities to Scott’s own problematic Legend, and both films feel as if they exist in distinct fantasy worlds completely alien to our own experience. In the same way that the Legend Director’s Cut makes use of a handsome Jerry Goldsmith score, so does Sander’s Huntsman employ a subtle yet yearning James Newton Howard soundtrack to complement its own haunting visions.
The downside is that Snow White, like many of Scott’s films, feels a bit truncated and incomplete on the drama side of things. Sanders spends more time mining the problematic script for all of its delirious imagery than he does rewiring its shorted character connections. The story flows effortlessly between set pieces and gets by on the dream logic of fairy tales, but it doesn’t bother to give the protagonists the same internal life it affords the queen. There are also a few scriptwriting tricks that cheapen the drama, chief among them a lazy attempt to connect Hemsworth’s woes with the villain’s actions. I suspect that there are also several relationship scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor in favor of action and spectacle. Where do Snow’s tears for Ravenna come from? What about Hemsworth’s ardor? Who are the dwarves really? A director’s cut of Snow White and the Huntsman could end up being the great movie this one clearly wants to be. Until then, we have this flawed but very entertaining magical trinket to beguile us.