Fairy tales don’t need to make sense. In fact, they usually work better when reason is forgotten altogether and pure elemental forces are allowed to rule the story. If this were the case, then Rupert Sanders’ visually smashing “reimagining” Snow White and the Huntsman might have had some of the thrust and drama that it wants to possess. But as it stands, the film is left critically unmoored between the dark fantasy world of magic and fairies and the corporeal world of castles and armies. There is little room left in between for the romantic element critical to this story, or even emotion.
The bones of the Snow White story remain visible, but they’re not too prominent, feeling more like afterthoughts. A kingdom in some unspecified but vaguely medieval land is all sunshine and flowers. That is, until the widowed king battles an army of Cylon-looking soldiers who shatter into black glass shards when struck. Afterwards, he finds a beautiful blonde prisoner of theirs and takes her back to his castle. One bedroom seduction that ends in a knifing later, and she reveals herself to be Ravenna (Charlize Theron), a malevolent queen who has conquered kingdom after kingdom in her quest for eternal life. She lets her army in through the front gate, the kingdom falls, and the princess “with lips red as blood, hair as black as a raven’s wing” (Kristen Stewart) is chucked into a prison tower.
Even after this lunky wad of prologue is gotten through, the story still takes some time to click into gear. Years later, Ravenna is having an increasingly hard time keeping herself looking as young and beautiful as ever. Played by Theron as one of her patented semi-robotic ice queens with blazing eyes (hardly dissimilar from the one she played in this summer’s Promeutheus), Ravenna is a vampiric spirit, literally sucking the life from any young girl she can find. The kingdom is similarly ravaged, the blooming fields having transformed into blackened ash. Completing the decadent scene is Ravenna’s white-blonde brother Finn (Sam Spruell), whose frantic need to serve her whims is played up for all its wincingly incestuous subtext.
It’s only after Ravenna’s mirror—a shimmering disk that extrudes a liquid gold shrouded and faceless figure to speak to her as fawning seer and courtier—tells her that Snow White will be her undoing does she seem to remember the princess locked away in the castle. Response? Kill the girl, of course. Only Snow White, beneath Stewart’s raccoon-eyed pout and somewhat limp presence, has some scrap to her and escapes. A furious Ravenna (as villains who spend entire films wondering why their henchmen can’t kill the hero, do), after bellowing, “I WANT HER HEART”, then dispatches the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track Snow White down for said cardiac harvesting.
Like the original Snow White tale, although romance is ultimately involved, the film is truly more concerned with the fight between beautiful young Snow White and the slowly withering old hag Ravenna. (The gender politics are none too subtle here, with Ravenna’s monstrousness keyed to her sensuality, as she is practically the only character in the film to show any evidence of a sex drive.) The Huntsman, a drunk who only took the Snow White job so Ravenna could use her dark arts to raise his dead wife back to life, supposedly falls for the princess on the run but there’s little evidence of that on screen.
Just as the Huntsman is besotted with Snow White (who seems distractingly younger than he, even though Hemsworth is just seven years Stewart’s senior it may as well be 15), along comes the grown-up version of William (Sam Claflin), who was her childhood sweetheart but now seems barely able to muster up any romantic interest in her. Both men’s motivations are as difficult to discern as why such a blood-thirsty despot as Ravenna kept Snow White alive all those years and why she hasn’t crushed the rebelling army led by William’s father the duke.
This Twilight-esque love triangle between the pale princess and her suitors (one refined, one beastly) is played out against a chase so standard-issue that the characters actually escape into a place called The Dark Forest. There is some disappointment here once it becomes clear that characters will not run into the Dread Pirate Roberts, Princess Buttercup, ROUSs, or indeed anybody from The Princess Bride. The dispiriting lack of narrative excitement brought on by the muffled performances and hammy screenplay is mollified somewhat by the filmmaker’s keen eye for luminous scenery and some inventive CGI work with the fairies, monsters, and soaring Gothic chambers that bring at least some element of wonder to the film. The lustrous visuals, besides being what the DVD’s top-quality transfer is meant for, also brings some distraction from the strange sight of seeing actors like Toby Jones and Bob Hoskins digitally shrunk so that they could play Snow White’s dwarves. (The less said about the latter, the better.)
There’s nowhere any of this can end but a big battle. So of course, Snow White must eventually transform herself into a wispy Joan of Arc figure in gleaming armor and lead her army into battle. Never mind that she’s spent most of her life cooped up in a dank dark cell speaking to nobody; back in the world a matter of days and here she’s whipping the troops up like Henry V. Not much of anything in Snow White and the Huntsman makes sense, either as fairy tale or human drama. This is possibly why the commentary and making-of documentary on the DVD / Blu-ray set don’t exactly have much to discuss about it besides platitudes about the director and explications of how one particular shot was gotten. What else is there to say?