Who, or what, is the mirror man? That’s just one of the questions to ponder during the downtime in Snow White and the Huntsman, an update of the Grimm’s fairy tale that owes more to C.S. Lewis, George R.R. Martin, and especially, Tim Burton, than it does to any folktales from the Black Forest. Noticeably trying to cash in on the box-office success of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, this Snow White throws in everything but the kitchen sink (Snow doesn’t have time for housekeeping with the seven dwarves; in fact, she narrowly escapes their territorial wrath).
The film’s changes in tone and inconsistent storytelling—it wanders the realm in search of excuses for lavish special effects—come at the expense of creating a consistent and convincing fantasyland. From the over-the-top grimness of the evil queen’s castle to the candy-colored sanctuary where Snow White encounters a magical reindeer (that appears to have wandered in from Narnia), the film tries to be all things to all ticket-buying fairy folk.
What Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is most ravenous for is power, and in her twisted worldview, only beauty is power (though, hey, soldiers march on their stomachs, not their libidos). She replenishes her stunning good looks (the beguiling costume design is the film’s most inventive element) by literally sucking the youth right out of the prettiest girls in the land. Ravenna’s supply of fair maidens is ensnared by her subservient brother (Sam Spruell), the story’s true huntsman, and with whom she has a creepy intimacy (perhaps she was once a Lannister from Game of Thrones).
Ravenna is also a witch who reigns supreme at summoning black magic, and an evil stepmother: She keeps her stepdaughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), imprisoned. Though Ravenna developed a taste for sadism while destroying the kingdom of her husband (“their cries give me strength”), she lets Snow White live—until the mirror warns her that upon reaching her majority, Snow will surpass her in beauty. Snow’s escape from the castle gives the film a much-needed interlude of heroics, and her sojourn in the Dark Forest is its most immersive set piece. And that is where she is found by the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a despairing, drunken lout who rises to the occasion after being won over by Snow’s nobility. Too bad for the audience that he was written to be such a simpleton.
Hemsworth’s amateurishly rustic accent is no match for Theron’s regally rounded vowels. Stewart’s imitation of PBS British is somewhat better, especially since Snow has hardly any dialogue, but aside from the queen’s towering temper tantrums, this is not an actor’s showcase by any stretch.
Tyro director Rupert Sanders’ workmanlike approach falls short of creating any sweeping sense of adventure, despite some real talent in the art department, and in fact, the story becomes curiously ridiculous with the arrival of the seven dwarves, who are confusedly mystical. It’s distracting to notice how such strapping thespians as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane have been digitally midgitized, while Toby Jones and Bob Hoskins waver between grotesquery and comedy. Meanwhile, fairies from another movie’s labyrinth join the pile-up of supposedly symbolic CGI creatures. Sanders has wandered down the wrong path by following Burton into the land of thin scripts and willy-nilly special effects, robbing this Grimm tale for grown-ups of its magic.