The idea underpinning Snow White and the Huntsman is a charming one. Epic summer movies use the language of fairy tale and myth to tell stories about contemporary heroes (who are The Avengers but a bunch of Olympians?); why not cut out the middleman and make a movie about a story everyone already knows?
Unfortunately, Snow White and the Huntsman expands strangely on the story every child knows before even hearing of Iron Man or Batman, making it a melange of fairy-tale and dull contemporary romance. Snow White, here, is not the sweetie who lives with seven hapless dwarfs—but, with little in the way of characterization, she’s a cipher.
Played by the vague and disassociated Kristen Stewart, Snow White spends the movie evading capture by the evil Queen’s army, but her most prominent character trait is her apparent beauty. At one point, a pursuing troll decides not to kill her simply because he gets a good look at her. Snow White, in the fairy tale and the Disney animated film, is not a dynamic character, and this film is true to form, placing at its center a young woman whose fairness has obviated the need for a personality.
As is so often the case, the film’s most intriguing character is the villain, Charlize Theron’s Ravenna. She is obsessed with her beauty and with consolidating power over Snow White’s unnamed kingdom, a land that she took over after killing Snow White’s father. Ms. Theron, chewing just the right amount of scenery, builds out the Queen into a character one misses whenever she’s not onscreen. She’s aided by the truly remarkable costume design and CGI work and hindered by the screenplay; far more thought was put into a bodice adorned with tiny bird skulls than into the specific rules governing Ravenna’s magical powers. Sometimes she gets power from sucking the beauty out of women, sometimes she does so by killing men. Ravenna can only be killed by the one person more beautiful than she—Snow White. While it’s unsporting to rank actresses according to their pulchritude, this movie’s conflation of beauty with virtue (in the case of Snow White) and power (in the case of both female leads) makes it an unfortunate necessity. Leave it at this: Kristen Stewart is more beautiful than the world’s most beautiful actress because the movie tells us so.
Given the general lack of elaboration as to Ravenna’s powers and Snow White’s character, the middle scenes of the movie are airless. In scene after scene, Snow White evades capture by the Queen’s henchmen simply by running out of the way; as an action caper, Snow White and the Huntsman lacks narrative ingenuity. Returning to Ravenna’s castle yields diminishing returns as well. Crafty though she is as an actress, Ms. Theron can shout “Bring me Snow White!” or a variation only so many times. If we miss her when she’s offscreen, we yearn for her appearances to have real heft.
Both Snow White’s adventures in the forest and the Queen’s ramblings in the castle may be doomed by director Rupert Sanders’s visual imagination. The movie is truly splendid to look at, and the vast tools at Mr. Sanders’s disposal stand in for any real narrative development. Snow White undergoes surrealist hallucinations, then goes to a fairy-ruled domain that Jean Cocteau might have directed if he had the budget for CGI. The Queen’s mirror drips onto the floor and re-forms in the shape of a man. With tricks like this, why wouldn’t a director keep using them again and again in place of scenes where Snow White reveals a motivation beyond survival?
The film’s greatest and most misused visual effect is Chris Hemsworth, who has overcome the burden of remarkable good looks to become one of the most charismatic young actors in Hollywood. Smeared in dirt, Mr. Hemsworth affects the movie’s sole convincing accent (the American, South African and Australian leads of this movie all play crypto-British) and plays the most interesting character. His huntsman, contracted to kill Snow White, is mourning the death of his wife and is unmoved by Snow White’s dubious charms. The movie, though, constructs a love triangle with Snow White’s childhood friend as the third wheel; this feels de rigueur, as though the screenwriters knew Kristen Stewart choosing between two men is more appealing at the box office than Kristen Stewart independent and fighting for survival.
It hardly seems coincidental that the film’s most interesting character is the one freighted with the least baggage; Snow White and the Queen are already well-known characters despite the fact that neither of them are interesting in their particulars. The attempts to push back against the commonly held awareness of who they are end up making Snow White inert rather than nice—she just isn’t convincing as the warrior princess she becomes at film’s end—and the Queen monomaniacal in a repetitive fashion. If one is adapting a well-known public-domain story to the screen, that story should have the adaptability to bear imagination. Snow White is not an interesting character, but she is a character to whom interesting things happen. Altering those events to a repeated series of narrow escapes (the dwarfs, here, are foot soldiers for Snow White, which is as bizarre as it sounds) and casting a notably uncharismatic actress as the woman who keeps making those escapes does the tale no service.
How, then, should fairy tales be adapted? (An adult version of Hansel and Gretel is said to be in the offing.) While the creativity behind Snow White and the Huntsman is to be lauded, that same creativity results in an alteration of the Snow White character to the degree that she’s both unrecognizable—and recognizable as a typical Kristen Stewart heroine, dazed and dependent upon male intervention. Had the film been more faithful to the narrative of its source material, it would have been better; that faithfulness would not have been for its own sake, but rather an acknowledgment that archetypal stories get passed along for a reason.
Snow White and the Huntsman
Running Time 127 minutes
Written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron