In some respects it’s been a banner year for Snow White. Apart from her starring role in the ABC smash “Once Upon a Time,” she’s now had her story adapted twice in big-budget, big-screen form. It was handled as goofy comedy in “Mirror Mirror,” and now receives grim (if not Grimm) treatment in Rupert Sanders’ “Snow White and the Huntsman,” a dark, forbidding picture that seems to take its cue from video games as well as moody action movies. Unfortunately, it proves another expensive dud.
A long-winded prologue sets the stage, recounting how young Snow’s (Raffey Cassidy) beloved father King Magnus (Noah Huntley), a sad widower, goes out to meet a strange army composed of black stone soldiers that shatter into obsidian shards when struck down. After defeating them, he rescues their supposed captive, the lovely Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who actually was their master, and is at once besotted with her. A wedding soon follows. But on the honeymoon bed Ravenna dispatches Magnus with a knife while sitting astride the poor fellow and promptly seizes the throne, condemning Snow to grow up in a tower dungeon. The loyal Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and his little son William (Xavier Atkins), Snow’s longtime playmate, are sent scurrying off to their castle, which henceforth serves as sanctuary for the Queen’s opponents.
Ravenna, meanwhile, maintains her status as “the fairest in the land”—at least according to the metallic figure that oozes out of her magic mirror—by taking what appear to be milk baths and, more importantly, sucking the life force out of young maidens, leaving them aged, fragile husks. (She’s a medieval version of Elizabeth Bathory, but possessed of unexplained dark powers.) But when Snow—now played by Kristen Stewart—turns eighteen and the mirror announces she’s now the fairest, Ravenna decides to gobble up her heart and thus drink in her beauty, too. Unfortunately, her ever-loyal brother Finn (Sam Spruell), a brooding fellow with a perpetual sneer (perhaps due to his unbecoming blond pageboy haircut), botches the job and Snow escapes—through the sewer tunnel, no less—to make her way into the dangerous Dark Forest.
Determined to retrieve her, Ravenna orders Finn to enlist the realm’s most capable tracker, the unnamed Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), to join the expedition, despite his being a dissolute bum, broken by grief over his dead wife. But she promises to return his spouse to life if he’ll assist the hunt. So off he goes, finding Snow with surprising ease (she’s just behind that tree!) before turning on Finn and becoming the protector who will accompany her to the Duke’s castle. (Snow, it appears, puts off some aura that makes people—and even beasts—recognize her as the true heir and potential savior of the land. Once again, this is unexplained.)
The picture now turns into a laborious trek as Snow and the Huntsman plod toward their destination, pursued by Finn and his soldiers (who are joined for some reason by the grown up William—played by handsome Sam Claflin—in the guise of a master bowman). They encounter various creatures—including a huge troll who nearly kills the Huntsman before Snow turns it into a puppy by making goo-goo eyes at it—and people, including a village of female archers and the more-than-seven dwarfs, a gruff bunch played by actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson) who are shrunk down to diminutive size by the magic of special effects and join Snow’s protective entourage.
Much of the journey is pretty gloomy, but one episode in fairy-land, where Snow’s hailed by a magnificent white stag that’s apparently king of the forest, has some visual magic to it (it’s rather reminiscent of the look Ridley Scott brought to his otherwise lumbering “Legend”). It ends sadly, though, as Ravenna—who also has a gift for shape-shifting—suddenly appears as William and coaxes Snow to chomp on the poisoned apple that puts her in a deathlike sleep. (Which raises a question: if the queen could simply fly to wherever Snow was whenever she wished, what was the point of having Finn and the Huntsman track her in the first place?) The sadness is lifted, however, when Snow is awakened by the famous kiss—not of pretty-boy William, but the Huntsman she’s learned somehow to love—and dons Joan of Arc-like armor to lead the Duke’s forces against Ravenna’s impregnable castle, which is nonetheless entered by the dwarfs through that infamous sewer tunnel. The raid leads to sword-clashing and a physical face-off between evil stepmother and saintly stepchild that satisfies only because it includes Stewart’s getting tossed around and otherwise beaten up by Theron.
That’s satisfying simply because otherwise Stewart is such a dull presence, offering nothing but the same blank, doe-eyed expression, always on the verge of breaking out in tears, that characterized her “Twilight” performances. Even when she tries to lighten up—as in a dance with a dwarf—she’s a glum girl indeed. And toothpick-thin as she is, she frankly looks absurd in knight garb. That’s not to say that Theron is much better. Hers is a one-note turn, all steely glares and screams, and she finds absolutely no humor in the part. The special effects help—watching her suddenly age, or turn into a flock of ravens (or into what looks like a tar pit when being embodied from them) gives her performance some shading, but that’s hardly her doing.
None of the other actors are much better, though. Hemsworth is brawny but inexpressive and Claflin just a pretty face (neither showing much chemistry with Stewart), and Spruell is as one-note as Theron. Some of the downsized actors playing the dwarfs have good moments, especially in close-up (Hoskins and Jones fare best), and an occasional clever line, but overall the effort involved in miniaturizing them doesn’t pay great benefits.
The best things about the movie, in fact, are Dominic Watkins’ production design, Colleen Atwood’s costumes, Greg Fraser’s cinematography and the effects. Together they create a definite mood, even if it’s a rather dour, depressing one. Otherwise, however, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is as much a misfire as 2010’s “Robin Hood” was. Gloomy and lugubrious, it’s yet another would-be summer blockbuster that isn’t worth the money it takes to buy a tub of buttered popcorn—or your time.