Snow White and the Huntsman is the second of the two Snow White-themed films to hit the silver screen within a span of two months. Inspired by the resounding success of Tim Burton’s fairy tale adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, both Snow White projects have been rushed into production with neither studio willing to give in and pull the plug on their film. While Mirror Mirror won the race to be the first out of the gate, Snow White and the Huntsman will most likely triumph at the box-office in the end. The question that is rightfully asked, however, is how this version compares to its entertaining, but ultimately forgettable predecessor. Beyond the basic characters constellation (Snow White is the protagonist and goes up against an evil queen), there are barely any points of comparison between the two films.
Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror is a very lightweight, colorful and harmless interpretation of the fairy tale aimed primarily at families. The marketing for Snow White and the Huntsman put a heavy emphasis on a darker plot and more fantasy action akin to The Lord of the Rings. We have been promised a strong, armored Snow White who leads an army into the battle against the black magic-powered legions of the Evil Queen. There haven’t been any hints of humor or lightheartedness in the trailers. The finished product tries hard to deliver on this premise, offering audiences a full-fledged large-scale fantasy epic. Unfortunately, first-time director Rupert Sanders just lacks the chops to deliver a very memorable cinematic experience.
The new take on the centuries-old tale treads familiar ground. Ravenna (Charlize Theron), an evil sorceress enchants a widowed king, marries him and them kills him on the wedding night, taking over the kingdom together with her obedient brother Finn (Sam Pruell). The king’s pure-hearted daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is locked up in a tower. Several years later, Ravenna still rules the kingdom, but her seemingly eternal beauty seems to falter. In order to maintain her looks, she literally sucks the youth out of innocent young women. Through her magical mirror she learns that killing Snow White and consuming her heart would end her worries about aging for good. Snow White, now all grown up, barely escapes the clutches of Ravenna and her brother and runs off into the enchanted Dark Forest. A washed up and embittered huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), who has ventured into the Dark Forest before, is hired with the task of finding Snow White and bringing her to the queen. However, once he captures her, he can’t bring himself to handing her over. Instead, he teams up with her and, later, with a band of dwarves as they embark on a quest to put an end to Ravenna’s evil rule.
It is clear that the idea was to give the Snow White legend a grand scope (there are already talks of follow-up films, turning this into a legitimate fantasy franchise), whereas Mirror Mirror wassatisfied with just telling the classic tale while using Shrek-styled self-referential humor. Completely different in style, scope and pace, Snow White and the Huntsman is nevertheless riddled with just as many shortcomings as Tarsem’s gaudi version of the fairy tale. The first-time screenwriter Evan Daugherty looked no further than the recent crop of fantasy films like Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and, of course, Twilight with which Snow White and the Huntsman shares its leading actress. The plot is assembled out of different parts of those films, all built around the main elements of the Snow White story (an evil queen, a poisoned apple, dwarves, a magical mirror…). In turn, first-timer Rupert Sanders also doesn’t bother to give the film his own visual trademark (something Tarsem did with his Snow White rendition). He simply settles for the nowadays usual gritty fantasy look, borrowing visual elements from the aforementioned films. Hayao Myiazaki’s studio Ghibli films serve as a less apparent visual inspiration for this film that only shines through in a few scenes, but very impressively so. There are moments of Snow White walking through a magically enchanted part of a forest, full with fairies, moss-covered tortoises, flower-like butterflies and other fantastical creatures. It’s not only moments like these that make Snow White and the Huntsman resemble the first The Chronicles of Narnia film more than any other fantasy movie in recent years (albeit there are no talking animals). There is an odd religious streak going through the film. It starts with Stewart’s Snow White reciting “Our Father” in her tower cell continues to an Aslan-like magical deer (that apparently never shows himself to normal mortals, but appears to “bless” Snow White) to a certain turn of events in the film’s third act that I will not spoil here, but that are reminiscent of events in the first Narnia film. There is also the usual message of pure-hearted good defeating corrupted evil, but the religious touch goes a little beyond that. Though some might not notice it, I found it oddly striking.
That said the movie does not have the fun moments of Narnia. Snow White and the Huntsman takes itself very seriously, leaving barely any room for humorous moments (chiefly provided by Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan as two of the dwarves). This is a fantasy movie imagined in the way of what modern day audiences want to see – gloomy, hard—edged and humorless. The key for a good fantasy film, however, is to find the right balance. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its epic scale, had its share of lighthearted moments. Sanders tries so hard to give Snow White and the Huntsman an ambitious scope, incorporating large-scale medieval battles, dark magic, a potential love story and some backstory for the villain, that the movie can barely hold all the strings together. Don’t get me wrong, despite the visual imagery being derivative, it still looks great and some visual effects work is just stunning. The film is fast-paced despite its 127-minutes running time and has its good share of action scenes spread throughout the film. The final confrontation between Snow White’s army and Ravenna’s forces is not nearly as epic as the marketing promises, though. In fact, a lot of the promotional material puts the emphasis on this movie having Snow White as an armored action-heroine, but she doesn’t put on the armor up until the final 20 minutes of the film and barely participates in the action at all.
Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is an underdeveloped character, but still more memorable than Lily Collins’ doe-eyed incarnation in Mirror Mirror which is just a testament to Stewart’s stronger acting. Once you buy into the conceit that Stewart is by any means better looking than Charlize Theron’s Ravenna, Snow White is a solid, if incredibly generic fantasy heroine. Theron on the other hand leaves a great impression as the constantly snarling, scenery-chewing vicious Ravenna. Unlike Julia Roberts’ version in Mirror Mirror, this film’s Evil Queen is given a backstory which explains her actions and gives the character just a hint of complexity and sadness. It also burdens the film with yet another message to deliver – the unimaginable pressure of good looks on women in order to achieve success. It is a noble endeavor, but there is too little and it gets lost amidst the effects-laden showdowns. Theron, as great as she is, is given a limited screentime as the film tries to juggle many characters at once. Julia Roberts’ interpretation of the character, though radically different, is no less memorable.
Sam Spruell as Ravenna’s creepy (potentially rapist) brother is barely seen in the marketing, but commands almost as much screentime as Theron does and serves as the reasonably effective, despicable, sneering antagonist to Snow White and, in particular, Hemsworth’s huntsman. Hemsworth stoically performs his heroic duties with his character stemming from the textbook of washed-up anti-heroes. This tone is set by his first scene that sees him drunk in a pub brawl. The inconsistent Scottish accent does the rest. The film’s band of dwarves is not particularly memorable, though it is interesting that the production went for known actors (like Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins and Ian MacShane) who have been digitally reduced in height instead of actual dwarf-actors. None of the dwarves particularly sticks out, even though Bob Hoskins gets to say the most ridiculous dialogue lines in the whole movie. Lastly, Sam Claflin as William, Snow White’s childhood friend and potential love interest is introduced as a great archer, but his character disappears for most parts of the film and seems to serve as an arbitrary element of a forced love triangle between him, the Huntsman and Snow White. However, the movie never bothers with even trying to explore the triangle. It is just briefly thrown into there and quickly forgotten without anything resembling a resolution. It seems like the only reason it exists is to evoke some kind of resemblance to Twilight. It’s absolutely throwaway and won’t satisfy young female audiences looking for another Edward/Jacob/Bella situation, but should serve as a relief to those not very partial of the Twilight films. The main focus of the film is individually on the Huntsman and on Snow White with Theron’s Ravenna getting less time on screen than she deserves and thus giving the final confrontation between her and Snow White little weight.
Nevertheless, the movie is still serviceable entertainment. It’s a visual treat with make-up effects on Theron and the visual rendition of the Dark Forest being the standouts. The action is mostly engaging and the main characters solid enough to carry the picture. In fact, during the film’s first hour Sanders nearly achieves that magical feeling of a fully realized rich fantasy world (as redundant as it might appear). However, the films second half is mostly undone by too many characters, contrived plot developments and some cringe-worthy dialogue. This is good enough to pass two hours, but for truly good fantasy just rewatch The Lord of the Rings or stick to Game of Thrones.