If you told me at the beginning of the year that I would love the Julia Roberts version and loathe the Charlize Theron version of the same basic story, I would have pitched a fit. Yet here I sit, thinking up new curse words for Snow White and The Huntsman while gazing wistfully back at Mirror, Mirror for whatever comfort it can give me. The latter film sparkles with wit and imagination. The former leaves one wondering how such a promising project could go so wrong.
Not that Charlize herself bears much blame. As the evil queen in this latest version of the enduring fairy tale, she remains the least offensive thing onscreen. True, she chews the scenery from time to time, particularly when the script calls for undue screaming. But in quieter moments, she holds us rapt with her pain and rage: hinting at depths that the rest of the film dearly hopes to mine. Hers is a fully realized character with a past and motivation aplenty to explain her wickedness. It lends the predictable elements of the story – the mirror, the apple, the obsession with youth and beauty – a surprising richness, and a sense that something stunning lies just beneath the surface.
Sadly, the remainder of the film can’t capitalize on it. Director Rupert Sanders fails to convert his 30-second sensibilities into a feature-length storyline, creating a parade of beautiful images that resemble postcards rather than a viable world. He also falls into the trap of letting his effects carry the day rather than the characters and narrative with which he so badly hopes to move us. The most egregious example comes with the seven dwarves, played here by full-sized (and well-known) actors whose faces have been electronically plastered onto actual little people. The effect works well, but our familiarity with the performers utterly destroys the illusion. We find ourselves hypnotized by Ian McShane’s visage on a tiny body, throwing us out of the story and focusing on the technology used to render it.
It gets worse. Snow White and the Huntsman aims for a revision of the classic fairy tale, bringing Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman in as a romantic interest and detailing a feminist retread of Snow White’s (Kristen Stewart) struggle against the queen. But it doesn’t know how to make that function within the framework of the original story, so key elements lose their purpose. They could have cut the dwarves very easily… but if they did, then they’d let down everyone who showed up expecting dwarves. So Sanders crams them in as best he can, unmindful of how awkward and ungainly the film becomes in the process. He makes the same mistake with far too many other elements as well.
The new material does little to improve matters. It starts with the admirable notion of reinterpreting the tale as the Hero’s Journey, with Snow White the Chosen One destined to destroy the evil queen. Unfortunately, it limits the notion to one-note proclamations and poorly realized exposition, thrust into the remainder of the film without rhyme or reason. Snow White and the Huntsman takes itself terribly seriously, which is hardly a crime. But when added to the dearth of interesting ideas and lines like, “on Gus’s soul, I swear it will be so,” the somber tone bites off far more than it can chew.
Stewart, sadly, doesn’t help the cause: delivering a heroine as blank and flavorless as the snow for which she’s named. When contrasted against Theron, her performance draws a sharp line between silences that speak volumes and silences that bore us to tears. It gets worse when she actually speaks, most notably during a late-inning Crispian’s Day speech that will have you chewing the seat cushions in pain. Hemsworth does somewhat better, but still spends most of the film in pitched battle with his own brogue and can’t muster the requisite passion required for the romance to work. Like the rest of the film, the love story gets lost along the way – too prominent to ignore but too hollow to care about.
So too does Sanders unleash his admittedly pretty visions without the faintest sense of emotional build-up, leaving individual scenes only barely connected to the film surrounding them. The lack of follow-through renders the srtoryline sluggish and dull, as initial fascination gives way to a junkyard of images and ideas. The sets and costumes carry a great initial punch, but can’t carry things on their own, while the psychological underpinnings appear just often enough to let us know how great they wanted this material to be. We’re left with a movie that plays like its own art book: lovely to browse through, but excruciating to actually experience. Theron becomes the lone bright spot in Snow White and the Huntsman, easily lost in a wilderness of irrelevant beauty. Whenever she appears, she makes us wonder if we’re rooting for the right side: a fatal flaw in a movie all too full of them.