There is at least this to be said for Snow White and the Huntsman: In a summer of sequels and mashups and reboots of recent films, this dark and serious take on the classic witchy, dwarfy tale feels refreshingly original, ambitious, and earnest. That isn't to say that the movie succeeds exactly, in fact it falls dismayingly short of its lofty goal, but there is still quite a bit of admirable effort to be found within.
Let's start with Kristen Stewart. This mumbly, wincing actress has never endeared herself to me, with all her tics (stop playing with your hair!) and swallowed line readings and downturned gaze. But really what I've always found most unlikable about her is that in her recent work, chiefly the Twilight films, she seems so disdainful of the material. Sure she's not wrong — it's criminally boring unfeminist muck — but, y'know, regardless of how beneath her it may be, she did accept the paycheck and people did slap down hard-earned cash to see her in the darn thing, so could she maybe take it a little bit seriously and not stumble through the movie like she's just woken up and has been told it's time to go to school? She's a total brat in those films, which is why it's such a pleasant reversal to see her as Snow White, actually trying and acting and all that stuff that an actor should do. She even affects a British-ish accent that's fairly consistent and mostly believable. It's almost cute that she's into it all, running around in medieval dresses and wielding a sword and everything. Good for you, girl. You finally left the frown-town ghetto for a bit.
That said, she's horribly miscast. There is nothing classical or old about Kristen Stewart. Her affectations, her poses, even her looks are completely modern inventions. She sorely sticks out in the ornate, baroque world of old that first-time feature director Rupert Sanders has created. Her skin gleams white and her lips glow red just as they're supposed to, but everything else about Stewart's presence in the film is a jarring distraction. One has to assume that her casting had to do with studio pressure and not a genuine creative impulse to put Bella Swan in a period piece, which is unfortunate. Had the role gone to, say, Emily Browning (who just did her own strange fairy tale in Sleeping Beauty), we might have had a more immersive film on our hands.
The one who is truly in step with Sanders' thick, churning aesthetic is the ferocious Charlize Theron, who, as the Evil Queen, doesn't so much chew the scenery as she does swallow it whole. In this version of the story — the screenplay was written by the improbable trio of newcomer Evan Daugherty, The Blind Side's John Lee Hancock, and Drive's Hossein Amini — the Queen, named Ravenna, is possessed of the blackest of magic, a volatile force that alternately destroys and sustains her. Using her dark art, she cunningly tricks the king, Snow White's father, into marrying her, only to murder him with erotic fury on their wedding night. She immediately lets her army, and her creepy Prince Valiant-haired brother (an effectively revolting Sam Spruell), into the castle and establishes her evil reign, casting the kingdom into darkness and impoverished starvation. To stay young she literally sucks the life out of the pretty young women of the realm, but it's a trick that can only sustain her for so long. So when she learns from her T-1000-esque magic mirror that the heart of Snow White, whom she's kept locked up in a tower since her coup, could make her immortal, she of course sends for the girl and starts sharpening her knives.
Theron does all this with a slow, heavy voice and a frosty glare that, through all the wickedness, faintly hums with a hint of loss or sadness. Theron is, of course, tremendously beautiful, but what really sells her in the movie is that she, much like Stewart, is so wonderfully game for the enterprise. Sanders and his writers lay things on pretty thick — there's nary a throwaway line here, it's all given the weight of most dire importance — but Theron is up for the task. She bellows and purrs and whispers like a grand diva of yesteryear. Unlike Mirror Mirror, which went the easy route and played everything as a joke, Snow White and the Huntsman is so deliberately unironic that it feels almost like a revival of some old form; it's Arthur Miller adapting Shakespeare while having a dark trip. There are moments when Theron goes a little too big, usually when she's yelling about her indestructibility, but for the most part she handles all this turgid stuff with aplomb. Theron is a great, commanding actress whom, most crucially, is developing a keen eye for interesting projects. We're glad she chose this one, because she brings something vital to it, and it looks like she had a lot of fun making it.
Anyway! Snow White of course escapes and heads into the scary woods and the Queen dispatches a surly, drunken, widower Huntsman to go after her. Aren't we lucky that the Huntsman comes in the form of Chris Hemsworth, who perhaps spends too much time covered in grime in the film to be exactly swoon-worthy, but is still assuredly a movie star of the highest grade. Hemsworth too puts on a bonny accent, his sounding a bit North English, and heads diligently off into the storm, even letting us see, toward the end of course, his teary softer side. He and Snow meet, they shoot each other dewy gazes, and then they encounter the dwarfs, who are all played by average sized actors — a rogues gallery of British grizzle, including Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, and Bob Hoskins — made short by the magic of CGI. The dwarfs lead Snow and Hunty (as I call him) out of the darkness and into a lush green world of fairies and other colorful, magical creatures, with the Queen's men, and that creepy brother, in hot pursuit.
It's at this point that, unfortunately, the film begins to go off the rails. Particularly, the consistency or logic of the magic starts to yaw and break from its moorings. For example, Theron keeps aging, then getting young again, then aging, then getting young. She's got a good sized store of young women whose youth she can suck, but why she chooses to let herself go or give herself a little touch-up at any particular moment is unclear. And sometimes her magic is killing her, at one point even turning her partially into a black gnarl of goo and bone (sort of), but other times it, y'know, makes her near about invincible. If the Queen had one long, slow deterioration, that would make for a truly compelling and coherent story, but as is we're never quite sure of the urgency of the stakes, so we eventually stop caring. Many of the Queen's various forms — aged crone, murder of crows, black goo — are taken, I suspect, to satisfy the film's visual ambitions. Everything looks cool and nifty and great, but most of it ultimately only serves to confuse the story. The same goes for the mystical fairy world that is located, near as I could tell, just past a cave a certain distance. And no one noticed it before? Except for just now? It doesn't really add up and, though a hearty enough portion of the film is spent there, the setting ultimately turns out to have meant very little to our larger tale. It's pretty, but useless.
That is, unfortunately, maybe a way to sum up this entire film. Snow White and the Huntsman is a noble try, a real and relatively grownup stab and creating a Tolkien-like world that, much to all our aw shucks disappointment, doesn't quite get there. Sanders is assuredly an emerging talent — his crisp, steadily filmed set pieces are at turns bracing and creepy, at others achingly lovely — and Theron happily throws her guts onto the sound stage, but due to the fatally miscast Stewart and a blurry mythology that feels arbitrary and rootless, I'm afraid this is, at the end, a slightly rotten apple.