Stories are made to be retold.
But only a few of the most successful, lasting narratives have the staying power to become engrained into the fabric of our culture. Snow White and the Huntsmanis the latest adaptation — two months after Mirror, Mirror — of one such story. Everyone is familiar with the evil queen, the magic mirror, the dwarves, the apple and true love’s kiss. With a tale this timeless, it’s all in the execution.
But free of any surprises, Huntsman is exactly what one would expect from a big-budget take on the Snow White fable.
Its tone is exactly as dark as it needs to be to achieve commercial viability with 18- to 39-year-old males, and as a result the film is not the subversively exciting revision of a classic story it might think itself. Rather, it’s a completely safe tread through been-there, done-that acts of PG-13 fantasy.
Though the film flaunts impressive celebrities, they only do the bare minimum required of them to make the movie work.
Kristen Stewart is kind and good-intentioned enough to justify her status as the chosen hero, and admittedly, it’s nice to see her play something approximating a strong female character. Opposite her is Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman, a suitable tough guy whose better nature simmers under scars the cruel world inflicted upon him.
Charlize Theron, the focal point of the film’s marketing campaign, possesses the unnaturally haunting beauty required to sell us on the evil Queen Ravenna, though the sorceress clearly didn’t get the message that immediately flying into a rage upon receiving bad news is neither the most effective nor the most menacing strategy by which to rule.
Then there are the seven dwarves, which come across as perfunctory to the rest of the film. It’s almost as if the filmmakers said: “We had to have the seven dwarves in this thing, so here they are.” And in lieu of memorable personalities — one’s even called Gus, which says something — they’re portrayed by a digitally shortened line-up of recognizable and well-liked Brits including Ian McShane and Ray Winstone.
Huntsman’s cast is its most squandered resource, but it fares far better with regard to visual design. The highlights are the two forest settings: One, a psychologically torturous maze of nightmarish visions, the other, a lush sanctuary populated by flora and fauna that would find themselves at home in the far superior fairytale film Princess Mononoke.
Other sights worth seeing? The queen’s magic, when realized correctly, is dazzling — particularly when birds are involved. The mirror, however, is a fantastic disappointment. A plain gold disc when not in use morphs when questioned into a liquid metal creature that, though brought to life with lackluster CGI, manages to look far stupider than the T-1000 in James Cameron’s Terminator sequel.
Thematically, Huntsman is at its best when it briefly and rather subtly addresses what “true love” might really mean. The film’s romantic elements are, if not particularly convincing, at least well-intentioned.
The one trope from earlier versions of the story that this adaptation tries to avert altogether is the antiquated notion of the handsome prince falling for the helpless princess because she’s there. Actual love is deeper than that, and at the end of the day this take on Snow White understands human emotion far better than Kristen Stewart’s other fantasy blockbusters.
Yet that goodwill doesn’t count for much during the action climax, a medieval siege battle exactly like the kind you’d find in a thousand other films. Men rush at gates, arrows fly, swords slash and armored soldiers die of bloodless wounds. There’s even a Wilhelm scream for good measure. Nothing exists to distinguish the battle save a bit of the queen’s magic at the end, and really, it’s nothing too impressive.
All in all, Snow White and the Huntsman just goes through the motions. And that’s the sad thing: Here was an opportunity to tell a classic story in a new way, but instead we have a story everyone knows told exactly like any other Hollywood fantasy film.
A lot of great works are noticeably predictable or derivative. To be both in the extreme is boring, and though nothing about it is truly bad, in the end Snow White and the Huntsman fails to stand out because it lacks the same purity of heart so highly valued in its protagonist.