According to first-time feature director Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman began life as a tongue-in-cheek, Shrek-like adventure. He must have changed everything but the title since then, as the original concept has morphed into a solemn medieval fantasy that’s worlds away from being a comedy summer romp.
A beautifully shot prologue gets us up to speed with a mostly familiar story: Snow White’s (Kristen Stewart) mother perishes, and her father remarries with a beautiful stranger (Charlize Theron) who swiftly dispatches the rightful king and seizes his kingdom, imprisoning his daughter in the castle. The Wicked Queen learns from her enchanted mirror that Snow White’s beauty isn’t only to surpass her own, but that her step-daughter’s innocence and purity is like an anti-ageing magic bullet; all she has to do is eat her heart and hey presto, eternal youth.
What follows is an archetypal story of an exile on a hero’s journey to regain what’s hers and restore balance to the kingdom. Accompanied by the burly, tortured Huntsman sent by the Queen to retrieve her, a rag-tag group of dwarfs and a handy army, Snow White returns to off Ravenna in a very convenient battle, and thence to live happily ever after (at least, until the proposed sequel).
Stewart’s Snow White is part Aslan the lion, part Jeanne d’Arc. A Christian symbol of healing goodness (she walks on water; we meet her reciting the Lord’s Prayer), Snow inspires and restores those around her thanks to her superpower of being really very pretty. Uncomplicated goodness being the path to protagonist boredom that it is, they’ve understandably tried to pep her character up with a flinty shard of rebelliousness, but sadly it’s not enough to flesh her out from archetype to person.
While Kristen Stewart is pretty good as the pretty, good titular lead, it’s Charlize Theron’s crazed performance as wicked Queen Ravenna that leaves the biggest impression. Demonic, furious, and psychologically fractured, Theron is utterly committed to her role as Ravenna, playing the sorceress as the ultimate psycho beauty queen. Theron has long done a good line in dark and crazy, and this, combined with her extreme beauty, make her a perfect fit for the part.
If you’ve seen the trailers, then you already know what Huntsman is very, very good at: visual effects. The film’s canny SFX team have worked out nifty ways to make characters explode into flocks of crows, clouds of butterflies, and splintery shards of coal, and are given ample opportunity to show off their tricks. The whole thing looks fantastic, from the hallucinogenic dark forest scenes to the Elysian enchanted wood, a beautifully created world that feels real while we’re in it.
Those same nifty visual effects have been used to create a recognisable cast of dwarfs, played by Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson. Despite the film extending to 127 minutes, it feels as if we barely meet the entertaining troupe, and that excellent cast isn’t showcased to its potential. A long and largely superfluous river village sequence could certainly have been sacrificed in favour of spending more time with Snow White’s smaller statured companions.
Snow White and the Huntsman hits the darker notes of the Brothers Grimm tale nicely but plays merry havoc with the romance plot, aiming for surprise but ending up by telling only half a story. The pleasingly sturdy Chris Hemsworth has a meatier backstory than Sam Claflin’s wispy Prince character, but both are difficult to pin down, and neither excites much empathy.
The overwhelming result is an exquisite-looking, but somehow empty fantasy adventure. Huntsman isn’t quite mad enough to be The Neverending Story, and it’s far too earnest to be Labyrinth, but sits somewhere on a par with the Narnia adaptations. While we’re talking comparisons, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the most obvious reference, from Huntsman’s battle scenes to its sweeping mountainside helicopter shots. Unlike that trilogy, though, Sanders is working from source material that could be told in full during one bedtime story; thin soup compared to the rich stew Jackson had to work with.
In short, Sanders’ film takes on too much. It aims to people the inevitably paper-thin pages of a fairy tale with robust, psychologically believable characters, as well as ticking off romance, epic action, stunning visuals, and comic relief. It’s simply too tall an order and results in an unbalanced, slightly dissatisfying film, if one with visuals to die for. Sanders has aimed high, something never to be discouraged, but ended up only somewhere in the middle. A visual tour de force, and an admirable debut from a talented director, but not an instant classic.