It’s rare these days to find a fairy tale adaptation that isn’t making fun of itself.
No winks. No giggles. No cheeky “Shrek”-style pop culture references.
Yet “Snow White and the Huntsman” embraces its seriousness. This is an earnest, nearly humorless adventure that features sword fights, not snarky asides. The film strives to be more “The Lord of the Rings” than “Mirror Mirror.” It sporadically succeeds — no thanks to Kristen Stewart, who plays the princess of the title.
Snow White was imprisoned years ago by stepmother Queen Ravenna (a mesmerizing Charlize Theron), who usurped the kingdom. When Snow escapes, Ravenna hires a “widower and a drunkard” huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to dispatch the girl from the Dark Forest. The queen is convinced her beauty and reign will endure if she devours the heart of this rival. But she is also counseled that “magic comes with a lofty price.”
It takes a while for “Snow White and the Huntsman” to get going — the title characters don’t even meet until 40 minutes in. Until then, a glut of backstory laden with narration keeps things stagnant. But once Snow is free to start rallying the remnants of her splintered kingdom, the movie provides a fairly rousing riff on the sword and sorcery genre.
Much of this comes courtesy of rookie director Rupert Sanders, a commercials whiz who excels at trippy visual imagery. The film offers wonderful layers of inventive design, from a “dark and mysterious army” that shatters into obsidian pieces when skewered, to a forest sanctuary rife with eye-laden mushrooms and moss-covered snakes. Even the customary mirror that the queen confides in looks more like a gong at a Rush concert come to life. Sanders doesn’t just rely on digital ingenuity; he finds locations (England and Wales) as dazzling as the New Zealand landscapes in “Rings.”
Despite all the eye candy, the story remains at the mercy of its actors.
With 25 features to her credit, star Stewart still struggles to reveal emotion. It’s like she’s unwilling or unable to open up to the camera. Is she playing the rightful heir to a medieval throne who is rallying her troops or a fatigued barista making a Cafe Americano? Hard to tell.
Faring better is Hemsworth, though the Australian actor is inexplicably saddled with the lone Scottish accent of the cast. Between portraying Thor in “The Avengers” and “The Athlete” in the remarkable horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods,” he has proven capable of taking on just about any type of cinematic menace this year. Hemsworth’s most difficult chore is making his adoration for the sullen Stewart plausible.
But this film is really about the queen, and Theron does all she can with the role. Few actresses are better at playing someone both knee-weakeningly beautiful and utterly fiendish. (This talent should have won her another Oscar last year for “Young Adult.”) Theron turns a stock character into a memorably sinister mix of scorned gold digger and plastic surgery addict. It takes a lot more than a pail of water to wipe out this wicked witch.
“Snow White and the Huntsman” tries hard to deliver a serious rendering of the Brothers Grimm classic. But the most “serious” aspect on display is the formidable skill exhibited by Theron, a legitimate queen of the screen.