Following the trifling, empty-calorie confection of “Mirror Mirror,” the season’s second cinematic stab at the famed Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Snow White and the Huntsman” unfolds in a stylish fashion that’s much bolder, darker and, well, grimmer.
While it contains all the “once upon a time” elements so familiar to generations of fable lovers — the vain, conniving queen; the pure, guileless princess; the poison apple; the boisterous woodland dwarfs, and the forebodingly robust huntsman — this interpretation by first-time director Rupert Sanders (who apprenticed on high-end commercials and music videos) is swift and sure-footed and is marked by some bracing flourishes of revisionism and postmodern attitude.
Where “Mirror Mirror’s” director Tarsem Singh took a decidedly lighter and jokier path to happily-ever-after, Sanders steers his picture along an eerier and grittier trail — through “Game of Thrones” territory where the darkling woods ooze black tar and drip with snakes and where the forest trolls are anything but merry, singsong and Disneyfied.
We get a quick initiation into “Snow White and the Huntsman’s” sinister shadings in the opening scenes on a blood-soaked battlefield, where victorious King Magnus (Noah Huntley) encounters the mesmerizing beauty Ravenna (a fearsome, ravishing Charlize Theron) and soon takes her as his queen. But in short order, the ruthless Ravenna slips a sharp blade into the king’s heart and seizes the throne for herself.
Quickly, she banishes her lovely stepdaughter Snow White (“Twilight” alum Kristen Stewart looking wane and overmatched) to the dungeon, plunges her kingdom into a deep funk, and, through the counsel of a magic mirror, determines to consume Snow White’s pure heart to ensure her own supremacy as “the fairest of them all.”
But delicate Snow White proves herself no pushover as she escapes and flees into the Dark Forest, where she gathers around her a colorful cadre of allies, even as Queen Ravenna dispatches the cunning, hunky Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, sporting a bristly Scottish brogue) to track her down. Then, the storybook path to “the end” takes some unusual and mildly compelling turns.
While at times the film’s bleakly beautiful atmospherics — its craggy scenery and spiky arsenal of CG effects (Theron bathing in a vat of silky milk and then fracturing apart in a flock a flapping ravens) — threaten to overwhelm all else, there are a few potent performances from the cast that keep things in balance.
Clearly, Theron herself exerts a powerful counterbalance to the director’s lavish obsession with surface and style. Her chilling rendering of Ravenna combines regal beauty, a heart of black ice and a soul-sucking zeal for evil that adds up to an awesome portrait of ruthlessness. It’s a performance that gives the fable a kind of mythic moral heft.
For much-needed comic relief, there are the eight (yes, count ’em) mushroom-loving dwarfs — a lovably savage band that includes heavy-duty stars Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones and Bob Hoskins, all made diminutive via trick photography. Their uncouth antics and ragged, ruffian warmth offer some welcome respite from the film’s otherwise unrelenting funereal tone.
As it wends its way inevitably, if too slowly, toward the requisite fairy-tale ending, “Snow White and the Huntsman” often makes up for what it lacks in storytelling heat with sheer visual inventiveness. Still, with its broody, moody look and fierce, elegant villainess it’s a welcome yin to “Mirror Mirror’s” frivolous yang.
— Dennis King
‘Snow White and the Huntsman’
PG-13 2:07 3 stars
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Toby Jones. (Intense sequence of violence and action and brief sensuality.)