Only those whose entire idea of fairy tales comes from sugary Disney cartoons will be shocked by the dark, violent edge in Snow White and the Huntsman, a revisionist reimagining of the oft-told tale. Those familiar with the horrific nature of the original tales from Grimm and Perrault, et al—morality plays with a vengeance—will get the vibe in Rupert Sanders' brooding, often gorgeous-looking film.
Not that Sanders' plot has anything to do with the original Brothers Grimm story that we know; scriptwriters Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini shift much of the focus to the Evil Queen and her backstory, while reinventing Snow White herself as an action heroine. But after the slapstick comedy of the season's first Snow White vehicle, Mirror Mirror, this is a refreshing attempt to retell the tale as dark fantasy—and for about two thirds of the film's considerable length, Sanders does a bang-up job of it. True, he falters in a few key areas, including a disappointing finale, but most of the film works as a gripping and imaginative adventure.
Charlize Theron is marvelously sinister as Ravenna, the predator beauty who beguiles young Snow White's recently widowed father, the King. She weds and dispatches him in short order, takes over the palace and the kingdom, and imprisons the little princess. While the new Queen's draconian policies and ruthless armies lay waste to the realm, she leaves a trail of desiccated virgins in her wake, whose souls she sucks out to maintain her eternal beauty. Theron takes no prisoners in the role, parading about with claws on her thumb and forefinger with which to extract the hearts of her enemies, accelerating her lines from purr to shriek in a heartbeat.
When her molten gold mirror inevitably tells her someone in the land is fairer than she, we meet the grown-up Snow White (Kristen Stewart) just in time for her to escapes captivity and flee into the wood, a place of dark sorcery full of black, scrabbling, scuttling things and tree limbs that claw and catch. The Huntsman (a persuasive Chris Hemsworth), is a dissolute drunkard with a tragic past; the Queen orders him into the wood to find and kill the princess, but he becomes her ally instead. Then there's William (Sam Claflin), son of a neighboring Duke, and Snow White's childhood friend; when he hears she's loose in the wood, he joins the Queen's hunting party in hopes of finding and rescuing her.
The film conveys a powerful visual sense of its own mythos, from the pageantry of a medieval wedding to a profound interlude among a community of women and girls who have scarred their faces to escape the Queen's notice, to an enchanted fairy forest full of flying sprites and gamboling wildlife. With all this going on, it's an hour before the Dwarves are even introduced, stalwart actors all—Ian McShane, Toby, Jones, and Ray Winstone, to name but a few—reduced to dwarf-size via CGI. (Although Bob Hoskins has little to do but look beatific as Muir, the blind visionary in the group.)
But the film could have used a warmer, more empathetic actress than angsty Stewart in the lead. (Muir rhapsodizes that "She is Life!" who will "heal the land," but Stewart doesn't possess that kind of radiance.) And despite its fabulous beginning, the story falls apart in its idiotic battle-siege finale, when Snow White dons armor and leads an army into the Queen's castle keep. Since the princess knows she's the only one who can defeat the Queen, a stealthy approach would have made much more sense, cost fewer lives, and been just as dramatic.
Still, there is much to like in this movie—especially the way the cherished idea of True Love's Kiss is handled, which may not be what you expect.