Well, somebody’s read Tanith Lee’s White as Snow! By “somebody”, I mean the heads of three separate studios, each of which spent the last year or so developing its own big-budget reinvention of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. If you’re wondering whose corporate spies deserve the biggest raise, keep in mind that Relativity Media rushed out Mirror, Mirror (2012) to avoid early comparison and that Buena Vista Pictures dropped out of the race entirely, hoping to cut its losses. In short, Universal Studios got a clear win with Snow White and the Huntsman, a fitting end, given the movie turned out pretty good.
Mind you, we’ve had sinister retellings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves before. I’ve already mentioned Lee’s novel, which likely influenced this version’s evil queen, and then there’s Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) with Monica Keena and Sigourney Weaver as the dueling heiresses to the throne. To this day, my favourite take remains Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), starring Ashley Laurence and Clare Higgins, but I digress. My point is, save for a few gorgeous flourishes, Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman doesn’t prove as imaginative as its producers would have us believe.
Need I bother with a plot synopsis? Surely, you remember Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is a fugitive princess whose stepmother, the sorceress queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), orders to be killed for fear the girl’s beauty might surpass her own. You ought to know as well that our heroine escapes into an enchanted forest and meets a group of little people (British character actors Nick Frost, Johnny Harris, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone, who apparently don’t mind taking work from real dwarves). Then the plot gets kind of ropy with the poison apple and life-giving kiss, but never mind.
I suspect most of you would rather I discuss the subtle changes that expand the children’s tale into a full-blown epic reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. As the title suggests, the huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), plays a larger role here, agreeing to protect the King’s daughter instead of abandoning her in the woods somewhere. He also finds himself part of a love triangle with Snow White and the notional Prince Charming, William (Sam Claflin), not that any of them notices, seeing as they’re all too busy organising armies and fulfilling prophecies.
Perhaps their perceived indifference stems from our heroine gazing longingly at everything that moves. Those who’ve come across my Twilight reviews know I have an unusually high tolerance for Kristen Stewart’s introverted lip-biting, but I fear the role of Bella may well have sucked out her soul. Consider the young starlet’s perpetual grimace during the epilogue. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what she’s meant to convey with those blank eyes and gritted teeth. By the same token, is it just me, or does Snow White deliver her prerequisite “rallying the troupes” speech as if she were trying to poop?
Yes, once again, the climax consists of an elaborate war sequence in which thousands of anonymous soldiers pummel each other in a big CGI blob. Fortunately, director Rupert Sanders understands that even the most expensive action scene needs a through line and characters for whom to root or mourn. As such, he provides the seven dwarves with a dramatic side quest, no doubt taking a page from the original Star Wars trilogy, and even throws in a bit of Roman field strategy for good measure.
It’s all in the execution, I guess. Take, for example, the enchanted forest’s gorgeous design, how it defies the popular belief among Hollywood producers that fantasy can only seem real if it’s presented in relentless shades of grey. At first, it seems Sanders adheres to the convention, but then he exposes us to an environment bursting with colours, evoking the work of animator Miyazaki Hayao all the while paying homage to Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
However, the true meat of Snow White and the Huntsman lies in Ravenna’s depiction as a broken woman instead of an evil queen. I love the way screenwriters Hossein Amini, Evan Daugherty, and John Lee Hancock turn the villainess into a tragic figure, emphasising her justifiable fury at an oppressive male culture, but it’s Charlize Theron’s commitment to the role and sense of vulnerability that carry the movie through, even as it devolves into standard blockbuster fare. I doubt Universal Studios could have scared away the competition without her breathtaking performance. In fact, forget the corporate spies, and give her the raise.