A few months ago, there was “Mirror Mirror,” a fantasy confection that endeavored to turn the “Snow White” fable into a highly stylized circus act with lousy punchlines. While bearable, it wasn’t remarkable. Curiously, movie two in this cinematic fairy tale war, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” takes the opposite storytelling approach, treating the material like it’s dragging a corpse across a fantasyland of doom. The rival “White” is an intentionally joyless creation, investing in a grim atmosphere of murder, sexual perversity, and medieval combat. However, the dwarfs remain, keeping the uneventful effort gasping for gulps of oxygen while it’s being smothered in anger. The producers are obviously trying to butch up an age-old saga of purity and romance, yet by elongating the plot, the filmmakers have inadvertently revealed the source material’s limitations.
The original tale of “Snow White” is plenty macabre on its own, but the one quality it doesn’t possess is blockbusterdom. That’s something only Hollywood can provide. “Snow White and the Huntsman” attempts to inject the source material full of big screen magic, using “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as a creative template to refresh the story for a large-scale adaptation. The screenplay (credited to three writers) does its duty dreaming up a new playground for recognizable characters, setting the story on European beaches and inside thick woods, with severe castle particulars helping to bring menace to Queen Ravenna’s rampage, with the soulless one stomping around a cavernous fortress. There’s also a new character in William (Sam Claftin), Snow’s childhood friend, failed protector, and master archer, searching for redemption as the hunt for the princess intensifies. There are encounters with trolls, fairies, and Aslan-esque stags, not to mention a slight reworking of the Magic Mirror visitations, reimagined here as Queen Ravenna’s escalating madness. With the whole enterprise wearing a distinct frown, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is determined to prove itself as the most hardcore adaptation yet. It’s only a shame the execution backfires on the creators.
“Huntsman” is the first film for director Rupert Sanders, and his inexperience with feature-length work shows. Visually, the effort is incredible, with extreme attention to ornate costumes and CGI textures, while the widescreen frame carries tremendous depth and surprise when it comes to the creatures that inhabit the semi-magical realm. “Huntsman” is a feast for the eyes, but that’s all the picture ends up getting right, and even the visual splendor and mystery wears out its welcome by the second half of the movie, when it becomes obvious that Sanders was hired for his eyes, not his heart.
This is a glacial picture, unable to build an exhaustive momentum common with humongous summer films of this nature. Stuck overbuilding a simplistic world, Sanders loses touch with the needs of storytelling, abandoning character to concentrate on the design of the movie. Tonality is also shaky at best, with the dwarfs introducing a brief high of whimsy before the feature is back in the dumps, while most of the supporting characters are presented here for their iconic place in the fairy tale, not because they add anything to the adventure. The Huntsman and Snow White have little need for the pint-sized help, though the camera tricks and CGI employed to pull off the illusion is quite neat. While essentially a story of jealousy, “Huntsman” labors to find a fresh angle to pursue, with all of the stillborn tangents and superfluous personalities forcing the production to ride the brakes, powerless to unleash a grand Grimm vision on the audience.
The performances don’t help the “Huntsman” cause either, with Theron wildly miscast as the devilish queen of unclear magical ability. While physically capable, the role requires an innate regality and vocal depth the actress doesn’t possess. She ends up a most unimposing threat. Stewart is equally ill-equipped, playing this supposedly steely heroine with teary eyes and slack-jawed ambiguity, making an unconvincing ascent into warlord mode. Hemsworth fares the best out of the three leads, able to convince as a man of strength and grief, providing the picture with its only offering of meaningful emotion.
There’s an enormous amount of work that went into the creation of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” yet so little thought was given to pace and excitement. It’s a blockbuster trying to zoom to screen glory on four flat tires, growing more tedious the harder it tries to peacock instead of electrify. As far as 2012 is concerned, “Mirror Mirror” is the fairest one of all.