The recent mini-boom in movies and TV shows based on fairy tales—in the past year, there have been two network series, Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and two movies, Mirror, Mirror and now Snow White and the Huntsman (Universal Pictures)—may not have produced any masterpieces, but the idea of mining centuries-old folklore for Hollywood source material has potential. Fairy tales—the real, grotty, passed-down-through-centuries-of-oral-literature kind—offer simple, emotionally resonant stories with proven crowd appeal, not to mention an excuse for all kinds of lavish visual spectacle (giants, trolls, epic battles, royal pageantry). Snow White and the Huntsman, the first feature from British commercial director Rupert Sanders, has its work cut out for it if it wants to be a truly dull piece of junk—but it manages.
It’s tempting to blame the movie’s peculiar leadenness on its casting. Charlize Theron isn’t a terrible choice to play the evil queen, though the poignancy of the queen’s obsession with youth might register more deeply if she were played by an actress who showed any visible signs of aging. But Twilight’s Kristen Stewart as Snow White—especially this particular version of Snow White, a Joan of Arc-like medieval action heroine? Not gonna happen. I won’t argue, as some have, that Stewart isn’t beautiful enough to be plausible as the winner of the “Who’s the fairest of them all?” face-off—they’re both lovely, so maybe the magic mirror just prefers slight brunettes to statuesque blondes. But Stewart’s whole manner, her slouchy bearing and general aura of sulky passivity, make her ill-suited to play a deposed princess whose irresistible charisma enables her to lead a peasant revolt. Stewart may have a limited range, but I don’t mind her in contemporary roles—she’s just right as the moony Bella in the Twilight movies or Jesse Eisenberg’s object of desire in Adventureland, and she even made a passable Joan Jett. Still, the image of her leading a castle siege in full battle armor is so incongruous it might come from one of those parody trailers that opened Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder.
But Snow White and the Huntsman’s problems go deeper than just the casting. This over-crammed, disjointed, and lugubrious film is misconceived from the ground up. Producer Joe Roth also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and the two films share a depressingly similar kind of badness, with how’d-they-do-that? CGI effects and ravishing production design piling up uselessly atop an increasingly incoherent story.
From a technical standpoint, the most notable of these effects has to be the convincing digital miniaturization of eight average-sized actors into 4-foot-tall versions of themselves (yes, spoiler alert: this Snow White adaptation features eight dwarfs. Not that I am suggesting that any dwarf is … expendable). I spent a solid minute thinking “Wow, they sure found a little-person actor who looks and sounds like Ian McShane” before realizing it was McShane. Along with Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost—a dream team of British character actors who are given little more to do than drink out of wineskins and jig around campfires. (There are fleeting hints that these dwarfs are hard-partying and a little pervy, but sadly, we never get to see them in full Game of Thrones debauchery mode.)
The digitized dwarfs don’t show up until well into the movie, just as Snow White and the brawny Scottish huntsman the queen has hired to track her down (Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in The Avengers) are emerging from the Dark Forest, a bad-trip zone full of malevolent, ankle-grasping trees, swarming insects, and stone bridges that transform into fanged trolls. Many of these transformation effects are cool-looking from a design point of view; in particular, Sanders seems obsessed with images of shape-shifting viscous liquids, like the magic mirror, which, when asked a question, melts into a pool of metal and then rises to form the shape of a veiled figure. Later, the queen will similarly materialize from a puddle of oozy black goo, like the Wicked Witch melting in reverse. In a welcome respite from the pervading atmosphere of stylish music video-style gloom, there’s also a kitschy enchanted forest straight out of Teletubbies, with friendly woodland creatures, creepy-cute one-eyeballed mushrooms, and tiny green fairies (naked, but disturbingly genital-less, presumably with an eye to the PG-13 rating).
I found myself looking forward to these little flights of visual fancy, because Snow White and the Huntsman doesn’t otherwise bring much imagination to its retelling of the venerable European folktale. Some of the key turning points in the myth—for example, the scene in which Snow White is brought back to life by a true love’s kiss—are puzzlingly botched. Because of the film’s herky-jerky pacing, and perhaps a deleted scene or two, the princess’s apparent death seems to last no more than a few hours—there isn’t even time to build a glass coffin before she’s on her feet, delivering a St. Crispin’s Day-style pep talk to the oppressed villagers.
The key relationship in the Snow White story, of course, is the twisted maternal dynamic between the aging queen and her just-blossoming-into-adulthood stepdaughter, who must be imprisoned, killed, even (in this version) physically consumed to keep her from surpassing the queen in beauty. And it’s with respect to this relationship that Snow White and the Huntsman most markedly drops the ball. Theron’s character, the vain, despotic Queen Ravenna, is given a hideous, toadying brother (Sam Spruell) as a henchman and foil, but he heads off into the Dark Forest early on in search of the runaway princess, leaving Theron to play most of her scenes, in essence, alone, with only interchangeable faceless advisers to listen to her villainous rants. Theron and Stewart get only two scenes together, one of them devoted almost entirely to action. Yes, it’s possible that their contrasting performance styles—Stewart mumbling and skulking in her armor, Theron chomping scenery as a camp diva in raven feathers—might have made any further encounters between the two unintentionally comic. But keeping these powerful female characters separated for so much of the film squanders the dramatic potential inherent in the ancient fairy tale, which is at heart about the tricky handoff of sexual power from one generation to another, and what happens when one side is unwilling to let go.