2012 has already delivered one big-budget movie based on the classic Grimm Brothers' fairy tale "Snow White." Earlier this spring arrived Tarsem's fizzy, Bollywood-ish "Mirror Mirror," which saw Julia Roberts vamping it up as the evil queen, surrounded by the most cheesily phony-looking sets this side of a Hammer horror movie -- if the movie had been any lighter it would have blown off the screen. And this week lands another: "Snow White & the Huntsman," an oppressively grim (pun very much intended) take on the fairy tale that instead favors mood, menace, and a kind of earthy grittiness, over the airier "Mirror Mirror." The problem is, that for all its frequently jaw-dropping visual panache, in narrative terms it sputters and stalls, sagging under the weight of its visual opulence.
"Snow White & the Huntsman" starts off well enough, churning through its predictable bedtime back-story – Snow White is a young girl born to a king and queen who possess an ethereal, almost otherworldly connection to the mystical world of nature (birds and other creatures love her). Sadly, her mother passes away and her father, after waging a battle against a magical army, becomes enchanted by a beautiful stranger named Ravenna (Charlize Theron). On their wedding night, Ravenna poisons and then stabs the king, overthrowing the castle with the help of her simpering brother Finn (Sam Spruell, saddled with an indefensibly bad bowl cut). Ravenna imprisons Snow White in a tower and, as learned through this expository-laden dialogue and overly long prologue, casts the kingdom into ruin and despair, as evil queens are wont to do.
Cutting ahead several years, the queen is now obsessed with black magic and is guided by her magic mirror -- which oozes out of the frame ominously and greets her as a golden, hooded character. When asked, the mirror informs her that she won't be the fairest of the land until she kills and consumes the heart of Snow White (now petulant and played by Kristen Stewart). Ravenna tasks her brother (their relationship definitely sporting a incestuous "Game of Thrones"-y vibe) to kill Snow White, but she escapes the palace walls and flees into the dark woods. Luckily for her, Ravenna's considerable and often showy powers do not work in these dark and haunted forests (she can turn into a flock of ravens, for instance). And like much of the movie it's never explained why her powers don't work in the tenebrous woods or even, geographically, where the dark woods are.
This is where the titular huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth, again tasked with looking handsome and carrying a large weapon), comes in. Something of a lowlife drunk and a troublemaker, the Huntsman accepts the queen's proposal to take down Snow White because she promises to bring his wife back from the dead if he succeeds. "A life for a life," she purrs. Upon entering the forest, though, he has a sudden change of heart and understands that the queen's promise is empty, so he flees with the young Snow White. This is where the movie begins to fall apart, seemingly getting tangled in the dark forest's gnarled underbrush, and never really gaining its footing again. It doesn't help that Hemsworth's motivation from turning selfish to selfless in a heartbeat is never tested and or explored. Some conflict might have been nice, but this film is only interested in moving forward; at what turns out to be deadening pace.
Once Snow White and the Huntsman set out on their series of increasingly low-stakes adventures, Ravenna is almost completely out of the movie, which is a real shame. The opening forty-five minutes or so are ruled almost exclusively by Theron and her operatic (some will say shrill and melodramatic) performance, which involves a lot of screaming, intense eyeshadow-soaked glares, and a milk bath that leaves her looking even more like an ivory statue of perfection. The performance isn't arch and knowing like Roberts in "Mirror Mirror," and has flashes of brilliance -- particularly in the opening when she drives a knife into the king's chest while simultaneously ranting about how men have been responsible for making her this way. When discussing how powerful males use women and then cast them aside when they reach a certain age, she might as well be describing Hollywood's hiring process.
When the movie is largely robbed of her deliciously evil, occasionally over-the-top presence, the increasingly deadly-serious picture also loses its only sense of playfulness, not to mention menace. Instead, director Rupert Sanders, a British commercial helmer, occasionally cuts back to the castle, where Theron is busy doing something that we have to assume is evil, but doesn't do much in terms of advancing the plot or putting our characters, who are now forced to trudge through a series of banal encounters, in any more danger.
After surviving the dark woods (which include a giant, Guillermo del Toro-ish troll) Snow White and the Huntsman tromp along a kind of picaresque narrative. Again, this is peppered with some really interesting ideas and situations, particularly when they come across a tribe of women who have scarred their faces because, without beauty, the queen has no interest in them, but is more often than not painfully drawn-out filler. Things pick up slightly when they finally meet the dwarves (there are eight this time instead of seven), but this is mostly because they are played by big stars like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost, ingeniously shrunk to diminutive proportions but just as rude and rough around the edges as you'd expect. They are convinced that Snow White is destined to free the land of its darkness, and set about assembling an army to retake the thrown.
Making considerably less sense is an interlude where Snow White goes into a magical, fairy-filled garden and encounters a spirit god directly lifted from Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" (a great, many-antlered deity). It can't be enough that Stewart's Snow White is strong and smart, these days all of these fantasy movies have to impart a sense of spiritual predestination, that her destiny, and not actual personal agency, is mostly to blame for her empowerment. It's a pretty obnoxious conceit, especially considering some of the earlier, more enlightened gender politics of the movie, and partnered with the somewhat off-putting visuals (tiny sprites emerge from the chest of sparrows), turns the movie into even more of a drag.
By the time the movie reaches its sub-"Lord of the Rings" climax (complete with boorishly loud and cliched speeches about heart and such), with Snow White wearing silvery armor and Hemsworth's Han Solo-y Eric finally coming to terms with his inner hero (Hemsworth does adequate work here, adding more layers than the script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini probably suggests), a number of "once upon a time" beats have been ticked off with workmanlike efficiency: poison apple (check); exiled do-gooder wanting Snow White's hand (check, said do-gooder played by Sam Claflin, just as wooden and pretty as he was in last year's 'Pirates of the Caribbean' sequel); evil queen's transformation into old lady (check); Snow White's brief but reversible death (check; this time she's laid out on a bed of animal skins instead of entombed in a glass coffin). At this point all those beautiful, tangential stylistic flourishes that the movie nursed in its first two acts feel even more like a burden – with a two hour plus running time, all you can think of is, "if they had cut that stuff out we would have been much further along by now."
Which is to say that "Snow White & the Huntsman" is often a visually gorgeous movie, at times genuinely jaw-dropping (like when Ravenna is crawling out of a puddle of goop made from dead ravens), but the rest of the film is totally drab. It's colorless, both literally (everything is charcoal and inky) and in terms of tone and texture – there's nothing the least bit funny or exciting or poppy. It's a movie made for children that is often shockingly dark and violent, but at the same time probably too frivolous for adults. The sweet spot they were aiming for is clearly Tim Burton's reimagined "Alice in Wonderland" (they both share pushy producer Joe Roth), but whereas Burton's, for all its faults, was singularly identifiable as a springy, colorful romp, "Snow White & the Huntsman" is humorless, and wants to be taken dead-seriously despite being based on source material most memorably brought to the screen in the form of a cartoon. "Snow White & the Huntsman" may be occasionally beautiful to look at (its costumes, aesthetics, etc.), but as the evil queen teaches us, it comes at a cost – in this sense, narrative momentum, actual stakes, and above all, an enjoyable experience. [C-]