Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a movie out of time. Were it not for the dazzling CG visual effects, you could be forgiven for pegging it as one of the crop of ’80s pulp fantasy movies embodied by cult classics like Ladyhawke or Beastmaster. It offers up some clever nods to the Disney’s animated take on the fairy tale, but it also stands apart as one of the darkest motion picture treatments we’ve seen of the Snow White story.
The story is mostly the same as what everyone knows in the broadest strokes. A wicked queen yearns to be the fairest in the land, but her magic mirror identifies young Snow White as the most beautiful. Huntsman injects more back story, with the queen, Charlize Theron’s Ravenna, claiming the throne after she seduces the king, kills him, and immediately thereafter stages a quick and violent coup.
The dead king also happens to be Snow’s father, and she’s taken captive. The young princess, played by Kristen Stewart, comes of age in captivity and is marked by the queen’s magic mirror as the fairest in the land. The fair blood that courses through her veins is the key to the queen’s salvation, but Snow escapes before her heart can be taken. A scoundrel of a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is hired to track down the missing princess, and therein lies the entire setup of Snow White and the Huntsman.
In big picture terms, there’s a surprising amount going on with the story, and not always to the benefit of the overall experience. Much time is spent early on maneuvering our key players into place for the eventual Final Showdown, too much time, I would argue. Especially with later scenes filling out background information that feels out of place and unnecessary in the context of the larger tale. In the end, the movie feels like it could have benefited from a few more tough love choices in the editing department.
Then there’s Kristen Stewart, who feels largely absent and out of focus for much of the story despite the fact that it’s her character’s name in the title. The Twilight‘s actress’s detractors will find plenty of fuel for their hateful fires here. Her performance is flat and wooden; thumbs up to her for suppressing her natural awkwardness, but it still doesn’t turn her into a talented performer.
Impressively, the movie still manages to entertain in spite of the female lead’s tepid performance and the overabundance of unnecessary scenes. Credit for that goes to the rest of the lead and supporting cast, as well as to the strong visual effects work and cinematography. Snow White and the Huntsman is a visual feast on every level, from the picturesque fantasy tableaux to Snow’s scene-stealing dwarf allies.
Rather than filling out the dwarves with little people actors, the casting department instead went with recognizable faces like Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, and Ian McShane. The dynamic between the digitally miniaturized gang feels genuine and fun. What initially feels like a one-dimensional bunch eventually evolves into something much more believable and enjoyable to watch.
Thumbs up as well to Theron’s turn as the evil sorceress Ravenna, and to Sam Spruell who plays her exceedingly creepy brother. One of the plot’s biggest missteps is how it spends time establishing Ravenna’s back story as a somewhat sympathetic one — she never earns that redemptive perspective in her present-day actions — but shoving that aside, Theron delivers a delightful performance as the evil queen. She pairs well with Spruell too, who is immediately memorable in the way that movie villains of the past like James Bond’s Jaws and The Princess Bride‘s Count Rugen are.
Let’s also not forget Chris Hemsworth. The Thor actor bears a slight resemblance here to his Marvel Comics superhero role, but his performance is that of a tortured, deeply depressed widower who lives out his death wish by challenging fate at every turn. His evolution from scoundrel to hero is the stuff of trite fantasy storytelling, but his performance sells it well.
The real standout, however, is the world. Snow White and the Huntsman is beautifully shot, and the fantasy elements are extremely well-realized. Whether it’s Ravenna’s black glass army or the fairy-filled forest, the movie is rife with memorable locations and fantasy creatures. It’s the reason the movie has such a strong kinship with the pulp fantasy efforts of the ’80s; like those older movies, the magical landscape here feels like a character unto itself, and really the most memorable one in the movie.
All of which amounts to a solid, if imperfect, movie. You’re not going to see a fantasy epic on par with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings treatments, but you’re similarly not stuck with a dreadful crapfest on par with Uwe Boll’s Dungeon Siege movie or the infamous Dungeons & Dragons movie adaptation. Snow White and the Huntsman delivers a mostly entertaining two-hour ride set in a rich fantasy world that is as beautiful as it is well-realized. It’s not a must-see movie of the summer, but it remains a summer movie that is entirely worth seeing.