Snow White & the Huntsman

Director:  Rupert Sanders
Starring:  Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin
Rating: 3 stars (out of five)

Snow White & the Huntsman is a flawed but ultimately enjoyable film. It suffers from an under-realized story but benefits from imaginative imagery used with restraint, and a similar restraint used to flesh out a familiar story with some new twists.

The highlight of the movie is Charlize Theron as the Queen. It’s a very difficult role—she is often alone, seething with rage or all but cackling with malevolent glee. An actress has to go over the top with the part, but go too far and you’ll be roundly mocked for hamming it up too much. I might occasionally fault the script for boxing Theron into that corner, but she rises to the role’s demands.

Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is a little less successful. She’s a talented actress, but the script doesn’t make her job easy. On the one hand, the filmmakers make efforts to update the original story’s focus on the young princess as merely a pretty face (albeit the prettiest face). Voiceover tells us that the child was mysteriously blessed with excessive beauty, but that the kingdom’s love for her is as much for her “defiant spirit” as her fairness. On the other hand, she spends too much time being a wide-eyed innocent, mostly moving through the story without real initiative. There’s no real character there. The story tells us that she wants to overthrow the evil queen to avenge her father and free the land—pretty good stuff—but Snow White as a person is not present. She’s a piece moving through the game board, and I never felt any emotional connection.

Emotional depth, such as there is, is provided by Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman. A cameo role in previous versions of the tale, here he’s a broken, scarred man, often drunk and always brooding. Hemsworth is a world-champion brooder, telegraphing his despair over his slain wife, and his self-doubt over having failed to protect her. It’s good he’s there, because the film recasts its charming prince in the person of Sam Claflin, who comes off as even more feckless than the script inadvertently paints him. Maybe it’s the scraggly beard. (This film is not going to help us curb the problem of undergroomed hipsters.)

Despite the weaknesses in the story (credited to Evan Daugherty, screenplay by him and two others), director Rupert Sanders acquits himself well. Being a commercial director making his feature debut, it’s no surprise that he specializes in cool imagery and fails to deliver a truly well-crafted tale. What’s amazing is that he didn’t overdo the visuals. The reimagining of the magic mirror is terrible, especially in its first digital-effect manifestation, but dark forests, knights made of jagged shards of obsidian, and flocks of malevolent ravens are used well.

Let’s credit the film with not reducing the story to a girl choosing between two boys. The potential is there, and truly flirted with, but despite having the Twilight megastar in the center, the filmmakers resist. It’s a story about a girl whose father has been murdered and whose rightful kingdom has been usurped and brutally oppressed. Not the time to be dividing the audience into Team Huntsman and Team Prince. In fact, given that the film is set in a darker world and made for an audience that should appreciate a young woman for more than her looks, the film does a very nice job of getting Stewart into Joan of Arc drag–that is, it though the character arc isn’t well-structured, it feels right within this world.

Further bonus points should definitely be awarded for a lush 2D presentation. The lack of stupid glasses and pandering, disruptive efforts to make stuff fly out the screen are a strength that helps not only the general experience of the film, but specifically its attempt to feel like a classic dark fairy tale.

Snow White & the Huntsman will do best with a teen and young-adult audience. It’s far too dark for children, and I imagine the older a moviegoer gets, the less the flashes of excellence will balance out basic narrative deficits. Last week’s big debut was Men in Black 3, which failed to deliver due to a clear lack of ambition. This movie isn’t coasting, but in a summer packed with highly anticipated blockbusters, it too suffers from not entirely delivering the goods. Which is a shame–there’s far more potential here than I’d have thought.