Whatever the overstuffed, oversold Snow White and the Huntsman lacks is compensated for by what adds up to a sweeping, cinematic summer epic. It turns out that the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, Thor), who with Snow White (Kristen Stewart, The Runaways) is upstaged by the most evil stepmother (Charlize Theron, Hancock) since Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, is also the hunted.
This, too, is a fairy tale, with beautiful landscapes and fairies and magical spells and Universal allows director Rupert Sanders to indulge in some of the darkest imagery in a mainstream female-driven movie, enough so that this picture ought to be off limits to sensitive and young children. Blood drips, organs are ripped out and the whole first half has the graphic malevolence of a gothic rock music video. But never so much that it takes us out of the story.
Snow White and the Huntsman is very much about the story (though a narrative is lost along the way), which is to say it’s a tale of a good girl, Snow White, an aristocrat born of innocence and purity and light, saying the Our Father like a good Catholic girl – brace for religious themes and iconography, which are not overdone like the godawful Narnia movies – versus her moral opposite.
Theron plays it broad in a daring and dimensional performance that calls upon her deepest rage. Her Evil Queen takes man-hating to its roots, expressing an outright contempt for life that might have slipped into sadism but doesn’t. The Evil Queen has been wronged, it is shown, and she makes everyone pay with her hatred for everything right in the world. She is the vain narcissist whose self-love merely masks her self-hatred, the ultimate proto-feminist raging against man and the puny, incestuous parasite all wrapped up in an evil bundle that kills creatures dead in an instant. She detests men for being men, including her own brother, whom she strikes down without pity and, as he grovels that he has been a loyal servant, the queen mocks him with the question: “Have I not given you all?” This to he from whom she has taken every trace of manliness. When evil stepmother walks the wedding aisle with her groom to see guests adoring the little girl whose eyes look up to her in wonder and she turns to look daggers at the child as her rival – a wicked notion thoroughly mined here – we know this woman has no ego, only envy, spreading evil wherever she treads. Beautiful Theron carries the queen’s ugly smallness through the role and the picture in a perfect performance. She dominates the movie, as she should; her act of evil dispatches the huntsman to assassinate the king’s daughter.
As Snow White, confined to solitude in a dark tower, Stewart offers a heroine who must learn to summon her inner strength and match it to her innocence. When a purposely disfigured child – marred on purpose to avoid the Evil Queen’s wrath against beauty – sits with Snow White to make a crude doll, Snow asks simply, “how about a face?” It’s an interesting role and Stewart is good in it, with the gruff huntsman, who is burned by loss, pursuing the princess into the dark forest and making himself face his own inner demons in the process. Snow White and the Huntsman is not as deep as all that, and there are marked flaws in plot development, places where Snow White is catapulted into situations that call for more than what we’ve seen, but it is a distinctive depiction of good versus evil – with a dramatization of women – filled with rage, rebellion and resurrection that make the action matter. Battles are epic, visuals are striking and the dwarves (look for Toby Jones, among others and another excellent turn by Ian McShane as one who resembles Tiny Tim), described as “noble gold miners” which they are, earn their way to the front lines in a revolutionary war against the evil queen’s reign of darkness, with a woman embracing her goodness leading the way.