Sanders takes the tale of Snow White and crafts it into something visually gorgeous that is at once familiar and refreshingly imaginative.
Snow White and the Huntsman re-imagines the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale as a Medieval fantasy epic, which starts off on a familiar note: A noble queen sees three drops of blood fall on fresh snow and wishes for a daughter who is just as fair. That daughter is born, but when the mother dies, the King, in his grief, takes on a new wife who proves to be his undoing. In this version, that evil queen is a man-hating sorceress named Ravenna (Charlize Theron), whose dark magic plunges the entire kingdom into despair and horror.
Ravenna is bonded to the fate of her captive stepdaughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), and when the vanity-feeding magic mirror informs her that Snow will either be her destruction or ticket to immortality, Ravenna opts for the "consume her beating heart" option. However, the 2012 Snow White is no mere damsel in distress and stages a brazen jailbreak, only to hop out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire of the dark forest. Ravenna recruits the widowed drunkard of a Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring Snow back, but it slowly becomes apparent to the broken warrior that this girl is part of a larger destiny - one she will need his (and others') help to fulfill.
It is a tricky thing to tell such a familiar story ("remake" and "reboot" have become dirty words, these days), and there is nothing more familiar than a fairy tale that has been spun and re-spun countless times over the span of two centuries. It's also daunting when the man in the director's chair (Rupert Sanders) is taking on a whale of a blockbuster epic as his first feature film.
Against all odds, however, Sanders takes the tale of Snow White and crafts it into something visually gorgeous that is at once familiar and refreshingly imaginative. From the stunning costumes of multi-Oscar-winning designer Colleen Atwood, to the set design and cinematography, Snow White and the Huntsman (known by its acronym-of-the-year nickname, SWATH) is simply an impressive piece of visual storytelling. Some of the action sequences could've been cleaner and clearer (too much 'quick-cut' editing) - but on the whole, Sanders' scene composition and choices in photography and angling create a distinctly original style. You will know that you are watching his movie.
While the visual component is excellent, the screenplay by writers Evan Daugherty (another first-timer), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Drive), and writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo) is less impressive. On the one hand, the classic Snow White fairy tale is cleverly spun into a modern adventure epic, with all the familiar elements - the dwarves, the handsome prince, the evil queen, the mirror, the apple, etc. - being given useful functions within the narrative. On the other hand, the story is rushed, the characters are (for the most part) thin and underdeveloped, while story beats meant to convey character personality and/or development don't hit with the impact they are meant to, or are simply ill-conceived.
A great example of these narrative miscues can be seen in the character of Ravenna, who is all screaming evil three-quarters of the time (the role must've been hell on Theron's vocal chords), but is given awkward and cumbersome "humanizing moments" that never really hit the mark, and come off as random rather than insightful. It leaves Theron's performance stranded in the realm of an over-the-top caricature - one who seems bi-polar (instead of sympathetic or complex) in the moments where she suddenly gets all tragic and weepy.
Hemsworth and Stewart both do fine in their leading roles - but again, a lot of the moments that are meant to endear us to their respective characters, or allure us with a "Will they, won't they?" romantic undercurrent, simply fall flat or are missed entirely. The Huntsman (think Thor with a Scottish brogue) has a character arc that, while conveyed effectively by Hemsworth, feels muted and distant in face of the larger narrative. Snow's arc is never really clear, or engaging, as Stewart is pretty much tasked with running from place to place looking wild-eyed and panic-stricken, until an unearned third-act turnaround sees her fitted in a suit of armor, running through flames waving a sword (all of which she handles well enough). By the end, we don't get much resolution to the main character arcs, and some big plot threads are left dangling in favor of an inevitable sequel. In fact, SWATH pretty much feels like a first chapter rather than a complete story, which is a slightly frustrating approach to a fairy tale.
The supporting characters are rendered well - especially the troupe of talented character actors who are flawlessly transformed into the famous band of dwarves that aid Snow White. Here The Dwarves are re-imagined as the last of a once-noble people, now reduced to crass-talking, violent bandits and comedic relief. The chemistry between the dwarf ensemble - Ian McShane (Deadwood), Toby Jones (Captain America), Bob Hoskins (Roger Rabbit), Ray Winstone (The Departed), Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz), Johnny Harris (Black Death), and Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes) - is a high point of the film, and some of the best lines and scenes are wholly owned by them. Rounding out the crew are Ravenna's brother, Finn (portrayed with creepy menace by Sam Spruell) and William, the young boy from Snow's past who grows into a rapid-firing warrior archer (and a third-wheel suitor for Snow's hand).
All of the understated romantic drama is ultimately wasted (one of those 'dangling threads' I mentioned), and there will inevitably be some people who insist that Stewart is a failure, thanks to the cursed mark (fair or not) of her Twilight persona. (There will also be those who crack wise about how there is no question of 'who is fairest' when comparing Stewart to Theron.) For my part, I don't think Stewart's presence detracts that much from the movie; overall, the entire cast is strong - though the script they are working from often is not.
In the end, SWATH is an impressive debut for Sanders; another great performance from Theron; yet another breakout action role for Hemsworth; a better heroine for Stewart to be playing, and an entertaining, visually stimulating (but ultimately hollow) summer movie experience.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Snow White and the Huntsman episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Snow White and the Huntsman is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action, and brief sensuality.