Review: “Snow White and the Huntsman”

Would it surprise you to learn that Kristen Stewart makes an unconvincing military leader? The fact that I can even start a review of “Snow White and the Huntsman” that way cements the film’s status as one of the summer’s more peculiar would-be hits. Stylistically, the film pushes no particularly eccentric boundaries, but one can imagine easier sells to mainstream audiences than a violent, mildly grotesque epic with “Snow White” in the title.

At least “Snow White and the Huntsman” manages to be one of the few major summer films whose creative origin is too old to be owned by a movie studio or comic book publisher. The movie is actually made as if storytelling were a higher priority than selling toys or appeasing fanboys, a feat in of itself for something that costs nearly $200 million. Still, there’s a cool air to the proceedings, as if the filmmakers were cautious about making something too interesting or hitting a nerve with the audience.

Stewart plays the eponymous princess in her first outing as a non-“Twilight” major film star. As for sword-swinging, I could think of more threatening opponents than one that barely outweighs the weapon they wield. But despite Stewart’s failings as a combatant, she does have the delicately feminine look required to pull off a beauty contest where fairness is the primary concern, though don’t expect her to exude the warmth of a first-rate princess. Even given the benefit of the doubt, Stewart is not leading lady material of the sort that this role needs. Her main asset here is the Rorschach quality that allows her female fans to look at her and envision themselves in the arms of a handsome vampire/warrior/werewolf/whatever.

Snow White’s tormentor is Queen Ravenna, played by Charlize Theron, whom most would argue is effortlessly fairer than her opponent. The queen, who reigns over a desolate kingdom and feasts on the bodies of others to sustain her beauty, is told by her magic mirror (which, as Roger Ebert points out, resembles the T-1000) that Snow White will either make her immortal or destroy her altogether. Thus she sends the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) out to fetch Snow White from the monster-infested Dark Forest, apparently with little concern that this surly drunk could find this pretty girl more worthy of his allegiance than a murderous aristocrat. Guess what happens.

First time director Rupert Sanders keeps the pacing brisk, perhaps too much so, because despite ample opportunities for drama or romance, the plot skips along, paying little mind to character development that could raise the stakes to the level necessary to create genuine anticipation of the outcome. The most striking moment occurs when Snow White enters a magical forest filled with enchanted animals, a setting that brilliantly contrasts with the gloomy ruin brought to the rest of the movie’s world by the queen. At other times, we get delicious glimpses of darkness hinting at the macabre, such as the eerily close relationship the queen has with her brother (Sam Spruell), or a shot depicting bodies littered around the queen’s chamber after she has drained them of life essence. These elements could have been explored further without breaking the PG-13 rating, but the film’s course is ultimately a safe one.

Hemsworth, who proved in “Thor” to be a capable actor in roles requiring both dramatic and physical virtues, lends considerable gravitas to his character, a peerless warrior mourning his murdered wife. He overpowers Stewart as the presence to watch, though since most of their interactions skew more towards plot than character development, he ends up underutilized. Snow White’s dwarves, played by great English actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Toby Jones, are similarly fascinating presences that are also assigned little of significance to do.

Sanders, along with writers Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini, packs the film with battle scenes, all nicely done, though lacking the visceral impact an R-rating would have allowed. Like the rest of the film, these sequences are well-made but devoid of the blood and passion that could have made them great. I yearned for a greater look into the queen’s torrid practices, the huntsman’s wounded soul, and the spectacular enchanted forest. These flourishes suggest a potentially wondrous film inside this merely adequate summer blockbuster.