Tenebrous overture, obsidian phalanx, psychotic dowager, orgasmic regicide, fowl-guided elusion, anthropomorphic old-growth, virginal refugee, besotted axeman (not, unfortunately, Keith Richards), minuscule marauders, deified deer, cribbed climax: fairytale verisimilitude.
Sorry about the spoilers, but that’s the whole plot of Snow White and the Huntsman. The movie is fertile ground for odd juxtapositions, and indeed, its entire concept functions as one. It’s got most of the elements — albeit in sleek, new-and-improved packaging — of the sturdy old Snow White legend about purity, vanity, and poison. At the same time, it’s got all the elements of those medieval-esque CGI spectacle movies — Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Narnia — that have either made or fallen short of making a lot of money in the past decade. Fairytale basics, modern movie economics: mix them together and then try to hire a director capable enough to give the whole thing the appearance of narrative life.
And the film does have this appearance for long stretches. Though it essentially boils down to the pop and shimmer of the costumes and the computer effects, Snow White and the Huntsman is ruthlessly divided into a classic three-act structure. The second act is the only one that comes to life: the titular duo are on the run from the wicked queen, cutting their way through a mischievous forest, allying with seven little people (each played by a distinguished English thespian), and taking advice from a messianic elk with an otherworldly glow. All the good stuff of legend. This long, swift act moves with the force of a good chase sequence, with a picaresque attention to the stops along the way.
The rest is all about giving the audience what it supposedly paid for: costumes, sets, dwarfs, derring-do, and a drippingly evil performance by Charlize Theron as Ravenna, the evil queen. The film’s awkward balance of realism (or what passes for it: the determined, overproduced gloom; the relentless focus on bruising, bashing, banging, bewitching; and some new-fashioned psychologically motivated fairy tale characters) and fantasy (or what passes for it: doe-eyed sentient mushrooms; a mossy, crystalline turtle; swirls of blackbirds coalescing into a statuesque psychopath; great actors like Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones trading jabs as dwarf warriors) makes Snow White and the Huntsman a frustrating mix of stunted storytelling and fecund imagery.
While by conception it’s a kid’s movie, by execution it’s an epic attempt to rival The Two Towers for fantasy. If, because of the film’s simpleness, it winds up more for little ones, then it should be commended for having left in touches like the queasy close-up of a dead bird’s innards (the main of which are chewed up by the wicked queen) and a fairly gruesome impaling by a gnarled tree trunk. But while Snow White (Kristen Stewart) herself is as understandably one-dimensional as any character who ever wore a blue and yellow dress to entertain the kids waiting in line at Disneyland (though the movie bows to the current need for women-warriors by putting her in shining armor for the ridiculous conclusion), her bedtime story-simplicity is undercut by the seriousness with which Hemsworth (as The Huntsman, as well as the film’s narrator) and Theron attack their roles. They have death-tinged reasons for being the tortured souls we’re presented with, which puts them at odds with a story frequently sprinkled with pixie dust and giant elk messiahs.
Writers as varied as the Brothers Grimm and Donald Barthelme have interpreted Snow White in a variety of ways, more often than not with grim seriousness. But director Rupert Sanders’ version just isn’t sturdy enough as a story — much less as a legend — to support elements like the festering psyche we’re asked to believe is within the cold heart of queen. It’s not even sturdy enough to imitate what it’s trying to imitate: the myth-furor that made Lord of the Rings a phenomenon. Except for possibly the aforementioned chase in the second act, Snow White doesn’t add anything you can’t find in those three films. Its beginning and end are rushed, atmospheric filler, save for the quieter moments that dot Theron’s generally histrionic performance. Does it seem a little perverse, rather than just harmlessly hollow, to try to cash in on a culture’s love of a much newer legend using nothing but the shell of an older one?