Snow White and the Huntsman is a film that exists solely for its design. Although Evan Daughtery (co-screenwriter and “screen story”) may have intended loftier goals for the film, as is evidenced by hints at narrative ambition, the second Rupert Sanders was hired to direct the film that all went out the window. There is no doubt that Sanders can craft some attractive cinematic visuals, regardless of their originality. Various elements of the film, from the atmospheric dark forest to the magical land of the fairies, are quite beautiful. But Sanders has no film experience; his previous work was solely in commercials. He has no evident skill for storytelling or how to direct his cast, and thus what little ambition existed after John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and Hossein Amini (Drive) got finished re-writing Daughtery’s script is lost. Left in its place is a listless and rote adaptation of a story we have heard many times before, often with far more energy and enthusiasm.
In many ways, this film feels like a cinematic smoothie. Take elements from other popular sources – The Lord of the Rings, Princess Mononoke, The Neverending Story, the work of Guillermo Del Toro – put them in a blender, and mix away. Sanders does a convincing job at crafting and selling these elements from a visual standpoint, but at the same time it all feels like a derivative hodgepodge. This creates a scenario in which the spirit of the Snow White tale is lost. I don’t need happy dancing dwarves, but at the same time this does not feel like it holds any veracity in the realm of Snow. Oftentimes putting a new twist on an old story can be magical and inspiring. This is not one of those times. Although the film follows the classic Grimm story fairly well and the inherent darkness, it somehow manages to lose the magic in the process.
The film starts with a crutch – unnecessary narration from the titular Huntsman – and fills us with a barrage of exposition that will be familiar to anyone who knows the story of Snow White. As we meet the evil queen Ravenna, it is clear that Charlize Theron has no shame and no inhibitions. Unfortunately, this makes for one of the most obnoxiously campy and embarrassing performances I have seen in some time. Charlize is one of my favorite actresses (she was absolutely brilliant and evil in last year’s fantastic Young Adult), however Sanders has no idea how to control his gorgeous star and thus Charlize flies off the handle. It is a loud, screeching performance that consists of writing and little nuance. She sure does look pretty, though, and she holds more presence than Kristen Stewart, who is fine though miscast. The only actor that manages to maintain their integrity in the film is Chris Hemsworth, who is somehow appearing in a much better and more energetic film than the rest of his cohorts. Hemsworth is a true film star, and his Huntsman is a roguish charmer with a tragic undercurrent. Hemsworth is great.
The film bounces and sags around the middle with little drive and a slew of unnecessary characters. In particular, the queen’s brother Finn (Sam Spruell) and Snow’s old childhood friend William (Sam Claflin, lacking in prescene much like his work in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) are useless baggage that only serve to pad the runtime. The dwarves, expected in any Snow White tale, are portrayed by a group of phenomenal British actors, but they are given no personality and are impugned by frankly creepy special effects work. I couldn’t tell you any of their names or their purpose. This speaks to a major problem that the film has: it seems as if nobody cared. The film is somehow simultaneously too fast paced and far too long, as no narrative thread serves to connect the pieces and yet we keep moving from place to place on a quest without meaning. The climax is as abrupt as any I have seen, and it leads to a battle sequence that has minimal stakes and no weight. If the film, then, exists solely for its design, one can’t help but wish that the design had more intention and more originality. There are special effects and high concept magical ideas a plenty, but none of it means a damn thing.