The greatest innovation Snow White And The Huntsman brings to its “dark retelling” of the Snow White fairy tale is suggesting that its evil-queen antagonist (played by Charlize Theron) has a name, a past, and a purpose. And its biggest letdown comes when it abandons that idea entirely in order to turn her into yet another generic baddie, an impersonal wall of CGI special effects and grimaces for Snow White (Kristen Stewart) to throw herself against. The first third of the film is cold but thrilling in its suggestion of deeper nuances to the story: When Theron marries and murders Stewart’s father to become queen, she does so with a whispered monologue about the ways men use women, and how a king ruined her in the past, so she feels no compunction about ruining a different king in the present. She defines her rule by her immortality, youth, and beauty, which she bitterly cites as the central powers of women. There are complicated elements at work here, with threads of curdled vengeance, victim entitlement, and insanity bound together in ways it would take a much smarter film to unravel. Snow White And The Huntsman doesn’t try, and the film just keeps getting dumber as it goes along.
It’s flabbergasting that 2012 saw two expansive, expensive live-action versions of the Snow White story, and the one Tarsem directed is less visually lush and less humorless and stilted. His Mirror Mirror at least had a sense of playfulness; Huntsman is prettier, but freighted with the self-importance of old-school fantasy films like Legend or Ladyhawke. After Stewart escapes a life of captivity in Theron’s castle (Theron’s refusal to kill her outright is never explained, and one of many things that could have been spun out into a more complicated version of the story, but instead is left as a bit of generic bad-guy stupidity), Theron sends angry widower Chris Hemsworth into the woods to hunt her down. Meanwhile, waiting in those woods are a pack of angry dwarves played by CGI-altered stars including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones. As all these elements come together—with the added complication of Stewart’s childhood crush, Sam Claflin, showing up to suggest a love triangle—Stewart eventually becomes a Snow Of Arc figure, leading an armed rebellion against the witch.
Much like Mirror Mirror, Huntsman appears to borrow liberally from other fantasy films. Sometimes the nods are clever—Stewart’s first night in the forest, among hallucinatory fog that gives the trees faces and clutching hands, evokes Disney’s animated Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs from 1937. Some are strangely detailed, like the hugely antlered white deer-creature-cum-forest-god seemingly stolen whole cloth from Princess Mononoke. But many are just wearying, like the de rigueur helicopter-cam scenes of the band of heroes trekking wearily across beautiful landscapes, courtesy of every epic fantasy from Krull to The Fellowship Of The Ring to Clash Of The Titans, or the lengthy exploration of a CGI fairyland that seems reminiscent of The Dark Crystal. That, too, is part of the disappointment: Huntsman starts out with a vision of Theron that’s specific, unique, and weighted in character, but it trends throughout toward generic fantasy tropes and black-and-white morality, and climaxes in a thoroughly familiar face-off. Huntsman feints at being the Snow White retelling no one has ever seen before, but ultimately becomes the “been there, done that” of fairy-tale filmmaking.