For a film obsessed with hearts both literal (eaten raw!) and figurative (plowing the same barren romantic ground as last year’s “Twilight Fairy Tale,” Red Riding Hood), Snow White and the Huntsman lacks a beating pulse of its own.
The Female Empowerment Action Film is this year’s second take on the classic story after Tarsem Singh’s pretty, batty Mirror, Mirror. This one stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth as the title characters, Charlize Theron as the Wicked Stepmother (raging imperiously on the Medieval fashion runway), and a gaggle of fine British character actors shrunk down to play the dwarfs.
It’s directed by first-timer Rupert Sanders, a British commercial and video-game maestro who, like so many of his ilk, is full to bursting with beautiful visual ideas and no clear sense of how to marry them to pesky anachronisms like plot, character, and theme.
Firmly in the Dumb But Lovely summer-movie wheelhouse, Snow White and the Huntsman is flush with visual flourishes both sumptuous and gritty and a pleasing dose of dark, storybook cruelty, infused with sex, death, and CGI magic. In addition to Theron’s parade of grandiose gowns, there’s blood and roses on the fallen snow, dark misty woods, a dazzlingly naturalistic enchanted forest, shape-shifting birds and glass shards, and a flowing metallic mirror man.
But Sanders and the script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), and Hossein Amini (Drive) are less adept in dealing out perfunctory musings about age, beauty, and female empowerment. For example, monarchic divinity rather than gender defines characters’ worth: As much as the film demands she’s a role model, Snow is not a heroine because of any admirable ethos special or skills (other than Troll Whispering) but simply because she’s The Princess.
But what really does this Snow White and the Huntsman in is trying to serve so many demographic masters and mistresses. It wants to be Twilight dopey, it wants to be Lord of the Rings epic, but it has no sense of its own self and fails in both romance and fantasy action. As a drunken, self-destructive widower who disobeys the Queen’s order to kill Snow White, Hemsworth gives a half-hearted, sexy scoundrel go at the village’s Han Solo, but Stewart looks back at him with the same glassy eyed stare she uses for magical birds and toadstools. And yes, unlike the source material, here the Stepmother-daughter conflict is resolved by armed insurrection. However, the film’s battle choreography both large and small is apathetic and unfocused, and Stewart’s big third-act “Snow of Arc” rally speech is a master class in embarrassment.
There are competing schools of thought about Kristen Stewart. I still cling precariously to the “she’s talented outside of the Twilight franchise” camp, but have grown weary of watching Stewart grimace and sigh her way through these bigger films, like she’s begrudgingly paying dues no one says she owes. Stewart’s not to blame for Snow White’s larger failings, but you have to wonder if a stronger, more charismatic actress might have carried the film up over its stalled and stale narrative.
Interestingly, the one place Snow White succeeds is in the fairy tale realm: Both the Queen’s dark spells and the verdant and visually rich enchanted forest live and breathe in subtle, beautiful ways the rest of the film either can’t muster or be bothered with. Neither rousing nor romantic, Sanders’ film is much more comfortable wielding magic than muscle.
After a plodding first half, the arrival of the dwarfs helps the cause. Led with gruff, grimy aplomb by Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins and including in their esteemed ranks Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan, they give the film a much-needed boost, but eventually they too bog down in the film’s narrative muck and muddle. (A fate all-too familiar in mainstream action-fantasy-sci-fi films these days.)
A clamor of summer escapism with loftier aspirations, Snow White and the Huntsman feels told, not lived; ever moving forward at a steady, eye-grabbing pace, but never getting anywhere. Its labored Lord of the Rings “epic-ness” feels prosaic, not in the mythic and dreamlike visuals which are often stunningly imaginative, but in the film’s hollow devotion to them. Sanders’ palette is full of promise for future endeavors, but unfortunately for now he’s yet another cinematic stylist with nothing to say.