Hollywood, in one of those industrywide moments of serendipity, has suddenly realized that fairy tales are public domain and can be exploited for free. Hence, the explosion in Brothers Grimm-inspired storytelling (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” NBC’s “Grimm,” Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, Tarsem Sing’s Mirror Mirror, the upcoming theatrical versions of Jack the Giant Killer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Arriving mere months after the last “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” adaptation (the aforementioned, slapstick-addled Mirror Mirror) comes Snow White and the Huntsman. While it may not go down in history as the definitive fairy tale feature, it will certainly tide us over until somebody pens a gritty, effects-filled reboot of “The Three Little Pigs.”
Snow White and the Huntsman get top billing in the title, but it’s really the evil queen’s show. Portrayed by South African actress Charlize Theron and given the slightly ridiculous name of Ravenna, our not-so-nice spell caster shows up on the doorstep of good King Magnus looking sexy, disheveled, ripe for the rescuing and ready for some holy matrimony. In very short order (24 hours!), the icy beauty has married the widowed king, murdered him and tossed his freckle-faced daughter in the dungeon. As we well know, the king’s daughter grows up to be Snow White (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), the fairest and most innocent maiden in all the land.
Quickly and conveniently double-crossed by the queen’s nasty brother, the Huntsman joins forces with Snow. The two stumble around the fungus-filled forest for a while, encountering random monsters and other CGI beasties. It’s clear that first-time director Rupert Sanders is trying to impart a dark, realistic feel upon this particular fairy tale. He accomplishes his goal but pushes the mood too far. Most everybody spends the movie scowling and wallowing in muck. It’s not so much gritty as it is really, really dirty.
Periodically, we cut back to our evil queen, who rants and raves and delivers soliloquies about age, beauty and the fickle nature of the male libido to a giant brass mirror. Eventually, our titular duo runs across a group of dwarfs. (Oh, yeah. They’re in this story too.) For some reason, there are eight of them now. They’re played by a healthy contingent of British actors (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Toby Jones among them), and they add a much-needed sense of humor to the film.
At this point, the film’s ambitions to become a Lord of the Rings-style epic are obvious. Unfortunately, the run time isn’t long enough (at 127 minutes) to contain the proposed grandeur. Eventually, so many characters get stuffed into the narrative that a lot of them end up with the short end of the stick. The queen’s lecherous, pale-skinned brother (British TV actor Sam Spruell) was probably an interesting character in an earlier draft. Our Prince Charming (Sam Claflin from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is little more than an afterthought. And the Huntsman kinda disappears from view at the climax. The filmmakers needed another hour at least to pull off what they had in mind. What they wind up with is a truncated ending in which everybody just shows up at the castle for one big battle scene and calls it a day. (In fact, the finale is lifted, almost in its entirety, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland—a film produced, none too coincidentally, by the same folks.)
Snow White and the Huntsman has its moments. The cast is solid (except for the miscast Hemsworth, whose nonromantic role cries out for some grizzled, Sean Connery-style gravitas). The fantasy-heavy effects are frequently dazzling. To its credit, this is a film that at least remembers fairy tales are supposed to be scary. (Ravenna’s metal-shard army is some nifty nightmare fuel.) Sanders, who cut his teeth on TV commercials, proves to be a credible visualist with a good eye for eye candy. The film looks ravishing—thanks in no small part to the technical crew. (The film should probably be nominated for an Oscar based on Theron’s costume changes alone.) But Sanders’ lack of experience shows through in a few places. Most of the acting consists of yelling (that way you know something dramatic is happening). The tone is inconsistent, waffling from grim to comical, from dreary to manic, from epic heroic to Disney Revisionist Lite. (Look, Snow White has a sword!) And for all the tinkering done to the original, Sanders and company haven’t come up with a notably improved tale. This version is particularly tepid in the romance department. Sorry, Twihards.
Sweeping aside the “happily ever after,” we’re probably not looking at a franchise here. Still, as far as fairy-tale-based fantasies go, Snow White and the Huntsman is quite beautiful, extremely imaginative and engagingly grim ... if not exactly Grimm.
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