The “Snow White” fairy tale gets its second big-screen retelling of 2012 in Snow White and the Huntsman, and were they alive, the Brothers Grimm might certainly be more pleased with this version of their story. Unlike the Julia Roberts comedic misfire Mirror, Mirror from back in March, this adaptation goes for dark and dramatic, populating its scenes with fantastical creatures, nightmarish visions, and a story of courage and hope overcoming despair and unrelenting evil. It’s everything you’d hope for in a modern re-invention of a Grimm fairy tale.
Except that it isn’t. As ambitious as the film and the filmmakers clearly were, as breathtaking and imaginative as the visuals are in parts and as thoughtful and powerful as some of the actors’ performances are, Snow White and the Huntsman ultimately fails at reaching greatness because the script is inconsistent, and it leaves you thinking perhaps that the title of the film should have been “The Evil Queen and the Huntsman”, since those two characters are far more fleshed out and interesting than Snow White herself.
The plot is certainly familiar in the broad strokes: through magic and deceit, the beautiful and ruthless Ravenna (Charlize Theron) usurps the throne of Snow White’s kingdom and imprisons the young princess (played by Raffey Cassidy as a young girl and as an adult by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) in the castle’s tower while allowing everyone in the land to believe her dead. Years later, Snow White escapes from her confinement into the Dark Forest, where Queen Ravenna has no power, and thus she employs “the Huntsman” (Chris Hemsworth, Thor), the only man in the kingdom ever to survive a trip into the Forest, to find and return the princess alive. The Huntsman initially agrees, but soon after finds himself aiding the princess, along with a group of dwarven bandits and Snow White’s childhood companion, William (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), first to find safety from the Queen’s clutches, and later to rally and lead the kingdom’s broken and dispirited people into fighting Ravenna’s rule.
It’s all full of dazzling special effects, landscapes and visions both beautiful and terrible that rival anything you might recall from the Lord of the Rings series, as well as all the familiar elements you’d expect to come in this story. The Queen’s transformation, the apple, the kiss, it’s all here, and sometimes it’s presented in a surprisingly imaginative and innovative way. There were LOTS of good ideas here, and that’s why the fact that all of that doesn’t add up to a truly great film is so disappointing.
You certainly cannot fault the actors for what goes wrong here. In particular, Charlize Theron stands out in the role of Ravenna, a tyrant whose vanity and cruelty are direct by-products of her experiences and the reality of her world. Beneath her magically-maintained beauty and regal bearing lurks barely-contained rage and desperation – when she asks the mirror, “Who’s the fairest of them all?”, it isn’t to gloat, but instead to seek some assurance of her continued survival, and Theron brings it all to life in a way that almost makes you feel sorry for the “Evil” Queen. Almost.
Similarly, Chris Hemsworth, who up to this point we’ve seen as a hammer-and-lightning wielding immortal prince and superhero in Thor and Marvel’s The Avengers, is very much human and vulnerable as the Huntsman. All the principals in this film are haunted by their pasts in some way, but Hemsworth’s Huntsman in particular is defined by his grief and sorrow borne of the past–he’s driven by it, and the actor makes all the decisions borne of that pain believable and relatable.
But what about the “main” character – what about Snow White herself? Unfortunately, herein lies the greatest failure of “Snow White and the Huntsman”: the film’s heroine, the character we’re supposed to cheer for as she defies overwhelming odds and rises to meet her destiny and heal her world, is easily the least interesting character on screen.
Despite whatever you might think of the Twilight movies and her performance in them, this is no fault of actress Kristen Stewart, who does her best with what she’s given to make the princess’s defining purity and innocence tangible in a way that’s not grating – she’s pure, but she’s no Disney “princess” ready to burst into song at any given moment.
The problem is that along with that purity, the film demands that we as an audience accept Snow White as becoming in the course of the film a strong, charismatic leader capable of lifting the hearts and rallying the spirits of her followers into following her to war against an all-powerful foe, and there’s just not enough there for us to do it. It’s as though in the filmmakers’ minds that’s supposed to be part of our suspension of disbelief, along with the existence of the dwarves, trolls, faeries, and dark forests in this world. When Snow White addresses her ragged followers and offers herself to them as their weapon against Ravenna’s power, it’s supposed to be a moment reminiscent of the great speeches of William Wallace in Braveheart, Maximus in Gladiator, and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It falls terribly short of those unforgettable, goosebumps-inducing scenes because the film’s script doesn’t give Snow White enough of her own to do to earn our loyalty the way that the characters in those other films did. It just asks us to believe in her the way that the dwarves and her people do, because she is who she is, the “fairest of them all,” and that’s just not enough.
That, along with a number of other inconsistencies in the script eventually deprive Snow White and the Huntsman of its power and deny it from reaching its potential. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but it promises a great deal at the outset in terms of it being an epic tale worthy of being retold and re-watched again and again, and it just doesn’t deliver on that promise. Instead, we get something that feels hollow and ephemeral, something you’ll forget about by the time next week’s blockbuster arrives in theaters, unlike the timeless story that inspired it.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Snow White and the Huntsman
Starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and directed by Rupert Sanders.
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality.