In one of those unusual Deep Impact vs. Armageddon and Antz vs. A Bugs Life situations, Snow White & the Huntsman is the second adaptation of the classic fairytale to be released this year, the other being Mirror Mirror from visually acclaimed Indian director Tarsem Singh. While that film took the cute and colourful approach, first time English director Rupert Sanders paints his portrait with darker colours, targeting his film less at children, and more at the young adult crowd, a demographic that makes up a big part of the box-office takings each and every week, not to mention made a star out of Twilight actress Kristen Stewart. The young actress also headlines here, and I think it’s fair to say that she’s the worst thing about the movie. Otherwise, Snow White & the Huntsman proves to be a surprisingly compelling action fantasy film, with a consistent pace, effective atmosphere and commanding visuals galore.
Despite the film being targeted at teens, Sanders’ achieves an impressively sinister tone in his opening act, in which the jealous, power-hungry Queen Ravina (Charlize Theron; Prometheus) locks the true heir to the kingdom – the beautiful, virtuous Snow White (Stewart) – in the highest tower of her castle. Dressed in lavish costume, Theron spits malice with every over-enunciated syllable, as Sanders emphasises her wickedness through haunting images of dying birds and demons made of glass, while employing savvy editing to juxtapose her viciousness against the purity of our heroine. When Snow White escapes the tower, we witness the extent of which Ravenna’s wickedness has ravaged the kingdom; a dark forest writhes with worms, snakes and creatures from nightmares, while female villagers scar their own faces so that the Queen might not punish them for their beauty.
Pursued by royal forces, Snow White encounters the titular Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth; The Avengers), who after some cajoling agrees to escort her to the castle of Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan; Clash of the Titans), where men loyal to her late father might aid her in winning back the throne. Along their journey they also encounter a clan of gold-mining dwarves, played somewhat disconcertingly by the likes of Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean 4), Toby Jones (My Week with Marilyn), Nick Frost (Attack the Block) and Ray Winstone (Edge of Darkness). In a beautiful sequence that rivals the visuals of James Cameron’s Avatar, Sanders takes us inside the dwarves’ sanctuary, which is home to all manner of magical creatures. So pure and tranquil is this valley that when it is disrupted by violence, the effect is viscerally distressing; a classic good versus evil tale, Snow White & the Huntsman makes the triumph of righteousness an emotional imperative for its audience.
The elephant in the room, however, is Stewart. The poor quality of the Twilight franchise has left some wondering if the actress’s potential is yet to be unlocked, but the jury is officially in: she’s dreadful. Fear, uncertainty, determination and love; they all look the same on Stewart’s inexpressive face. As a result, the dynamic between the two title characters is just as unconvincing as it is underdeveloped, burdening Hemsworth’s otherwise charismatic role as a classic cinema swashbuckler. Far worse than their relationship, however, is the relationship between Snow White and Prince William, played by young pom Samuel Claflin (who also appeared as a similarly drippy, overly earnest lover-boy in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean). The inclusion of the character is the only time the movie really panders to its young adult audience and, given the feebleness of its implementation, would have been wise to leave out.
As a result of Stewart’s blandness, her inevitable call-to-arms speech falls conspicuously flat, making for an awkward segue into the movie’s grand action-packed finale. Thankfully, Sanders’ direction of the action in the climax and throughout the film is comprehensible and thrilling, if unrealistically bloodless; the teen rating, naturally, prevents any Game of Thrones-style carnage. Then again, these limitations also work in the movie’s favour: the implied threat of rape and suggestion of incest — never overt, but hiding in the shadows — is a big part of what makes the first act so chillingly dark and unsettling.