Snow White and the Huntsman looks fantastic. It’s visually inventive, has a handful of dazzling set pieces, is expressively costumed, and is lit very well. It doesn’t offer much else, but that’s good enough.
The story has a loose fealty to the legend it’s based on (much more than its predecessor in the sexed-up fairy tale genre, 2011’s Red Riding Hood) but its real devotion is to movie magic, which it has in spades. Charlize Theron plays Ravena, a powerful witch who can maintain her beauty with the hearts of pretty young girls. She seduces the widowed king of a peaceful nation, marries and murders him for the throne. Once in power she chokes away the life of its people and land, acquiring young beauties to fuel her vain attempt at immortality. All the while, she has been keeping the rightful heir, the king’s daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) captive. While consulting her magical mirror, Ravena learns that Snow White is the only one who can kill her, as she has the power to heal even would-be fatal wounds, and similarly, if Ravena were to consume Snow White’s heart, she would become permanently young and would no longer need a constant supply of sacrifices. The mirror, when called upon, unfreezes itself from its staid position and transforms into a velvety, caramel substance that reshapes into a faceless humanoid, like a knight on a chess board, and responds to questions. Ravena speaks to the mirror on a semi-regular basis; why the mirror decided to wait so long to share that Ravena’s biggest threat and key to her life’s ambition were the same person and had been living upstairs in a cell for a dozen years I don’t know, but I don’t understand mirror logic.
Ravena sends for Snow White but the girl escapes to the woods and is pursued by Ravena’s sniveling brother (Sam Spruell) and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), hired by Ravena because of his knowledge of the woods. When she is found, The Huntsman who is no friend of the Queen’s, joins Snow White and they become fugitives. While being pursued, the two encounter eight dwarves, played by an impressive list of British character actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Nick Frost. From there Snow White reunites with a small band that was loyal to her father the king, and she leads them into battle against the icy Ravena.
The story is secondary to what is a purely visual movie, which is right, as fairy tales are not ripe material for complex characterization. Theron is quite good as the evil witch, she does a fine job portraying her addiction to youth, and while special effects have her age ebb and flow, even while young and beautiful, she seems vaguely ugly. However, more often than not, she’s made to scream orders and stomp around. Stewart’s character has to be so pure and good she becomes uninteresting, something of a milquetoast really. Some of these problems come from the screenplay. Snow White gives a speech near the end to drive her troops into battle, and let’s just say it ain’t the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. Hemsworth, after making such an impression as Thor, isn’t given much to do when he’s not swinging an ax, and there’s another male character played by Sam Claflin that fails to move the needle much either. But when all these characters are in action they look their parts. Stewart, in particular, in her shiny metal armor, recalls Joan of Arc, and this is a movie about how things look.
Besides the impressive mirror, we are given battles where the conquered shatter into pieces, a troll that seems inspired by Guillermo Del Toro’s creations, a poison apple that ages in one’s hand, and creatures made of shards of glass. The cinematography, by Greig Fraser, is a little too impressed with itself but is effective, and the lighting is well done throughout. There’s a tendency in these types of movies to hide the deficiencies in the special effects in darkness (the action in Red Riding Hood occurred almost exclusively at night), but Snow White and the Huntsman is proud of what it’s created. The action pieces are staged well; there’s a sense of spacing and coherence that is becoming more and more rare. If I never fully connected with the cause of Snow White and her group, I can live with that because I had plenty to look at.
Colleen Atwood, who I was not surprised to learn designs costumes for many of Tim Burton’s movies, dresses Theron magnificently, creating pieces that evoke the beautiful exterior but the cold, black soul. In the final scene she wears a dress that is all angles and spines, evoking Ravena’s true skin. Forty-seven people worked in the make-up department for Snow White and the Huntsman and that might seem like a lot but you can see the results. By contrast, four people are credited with writing the story and that department could have used more manpower.
Snow White and the Huntsman pulls off the neat trick of being rather thin without feeling unsubstantial. This is much the same creative team that gave us Burton’s Alice and Wonderland (2010), but that movie felt distant and empty and this one feels engaging and rich.