Snow White and the Huntsman
'Snow White' brings fairy-tale magic to the multiplex
The classic fairy tales were cobbled together from centuries of accumulated cultural DNA: Oral tradition, local legends, moral fables, cautionary tales. “Snow White and the Huntsman” just feels like it was made from the pieces of every fantasy-action movie ever made.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Parts of the film — the second “Snow White” revamp this year and easily the superior of “Mirror Mirror” — are very nearly wonderful. Others are of a surpassing silliness. They come at you willy-nilly, so if you don’t like one bit, just wait a while. A sequence in an enchanted faerie glade perches delightfully on the edge of camp, with eerie pixies crossing paths with live-action Disney bunnies. Later, when a medieval army pulls up in front of a majestic seacoast castle, some of us will be waiting in vain for the police cars from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to appear.
And so it goes. “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a re-engineering of the well-known story to fit the dimensions and demands of today’s multiplex screens. Kristen Stewart plays the heroine as a distressed fugitive who discovers her inner Joan of Arc; like Bella in “Twilight” — and because that franchise has made the one-girl/two-guy triangle inescapable in pop culture — Snow has two hunks in her corner, the virile Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, carrying an axe instead of Thor’s hammer) and the stalwart Prince William (Sam Claflin). No, not that Prince William.
As Ravenna — you know her as the evil stepmother, although her marriage to Snow White’s father (Noah Huntley) is extremely brief — Charlize Theron gives a performance that fuses astonishing costumes (from multi-Oscar winner Colleen Atwood), alarming special effects, and overacting of a degree rarely seen these days. Theron can be an actress of wit and even subtlety, but it’s hard to bring nuance to a role that requires you to bellow “YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME!” a few scenes after emerging from an oil slick covered in crows.
There are dwarves, fine actors like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan who have been covered in grime and digitally scrunched down to requisition dwarf size. (Isn’t this against the rules?) There are snorting trolls and vorpal swords and Dark Forests and albinos; there are flaming catapults and poisoned apples and gooey magic mirrors. Stewart’s Snow White is half Princess Buttercup with a wicked migraine and half Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings” in a dress. Oh, and Aslan makes a special guest appearance disguised as a white stag.
After a while, you just sit back and let the thing wash over you, marveling and giggling as necessary. The director, Rupert Sanders, is making his feature debut after a number of eye-catching commercials and shorts. He has talent, conviction, and a knack for the arresting image; what he doesn’t have yet is any sense of how to craft a seamless two-hour narrative. “Snow White and the Huntsman” plays like a dozen pretty good short films and a couple of clinkers hitched together like boxcars. When it aims for dramatic ambiguity, it just seems confused.
Is the movie entertaining? In its schizophrenic fashion, yes. The production design, the clothes, the storied British cathedrals invite you to wallow in their opulence, and whatever else you say about “Snow White and the Huntsman,” it’s rarely boring. Most shockingly, Kristen Stewart comes out of it unscathed. Mousy-pretty rather than fairy-tale beautiful, an actress of limited range (but capable of strong work within that range), Stewart spends the first half of the film hardly speaking a word, as if the producers were afraid to let her talk.
When she does open her mouth, it’s with a potted kinda-British accent that sounds as if she prepared by watching BBC America for a month. Yet Stewart’s performance grows in stature as her character gains confidence, and by the time she gets to her big scene — it’s the locker-room speech, where she whips the populace into rebelling against the evil queen — the actress is at one with the movie’s eerily possessed intensity. The moment passes (in this movie, it always does), but you’re left with a sense of what could have been — of a genetically modified fairy tale that might have left us feeling happily ever after.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.