In Snow White and the Huntsman, a series of characters insist over and over again that the titular princess is "very special" or "the one" or "the only one who can save us;" it's a classic instance of telling instead of showing that reveals a lot about this glossy but unsatisfying fairy tale revision. Snow White is special because she has to be for the story to work, not because director Rupert Sanders, the trio of screenwriters or Kristen Stewart give us any reason to believe it. And the more the movie tells you something you know isn't true, the harder it is to invest in a story you know already, and in a world that's all surface sheen and no logic or stakes.
First-time director Sanders famously got the job after presenting a self-shot visual reel, and it's clear he cherishes the grim, fantastically curated visuals of the film above all else. That goes double for every scene featuring Ravenna (Charlize Theron), the evil stepmother queen who handily kills Snow White's father then locks the girl up in a tower, all the better to execute her reign of terror on the land. Far from your run-of-the-mill despot who can only poison an apple, Ravenna maintains eternal beauty by sucking out the youthful souls of women culled from the countryside; she can also sic glass knights on her enemies, shapeshift, and somehow also extend the youth of her doting brother (Sam Spruell).
Theron commits admirably to the evil but broken Ravenna, but beyond outfitting her with a series of phenomenal dresses and a few nifty CGI transformations, Sanders basically abandons her. Theron's high-pitched, ferocious performance frequently borders on camp, but Sanders never lets her take it there, leaving her fuming in her castle in a series of dresses and severe crowns that imprison what could have been the most interesting part of the movie. Because beyond Ravenna, we're left with "the one" Snow White, her handsome but boring would-be savior William (Sam Claflin), a band of hastily sketched-out dwarves played by barely recognizable famous people like Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins, and then the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), who with a gruff Scottish accent and axe-throwing skills frequently seems as bored to be stuck with Snow White as we are.
The Huntsman is initially assigned to kill Snow White and bring back her heart, just like in the fairy tale, but winds up traveling with her through the dark forest, which Sanders overstuffs with horrors early on but eventually looks like regular old woods. For a movie that ends in an epic battle on horseback, Snow White and the Huntsman is remarkably aimless for a while-- the main two evade capture, run into some dwarves and a hauntingly beautiful village of women (the movie's best scene by far), and then eventually work up the stones and the manpower to fight back against Ravenna.
The easiest way to liven up the proceedings would have been a romance, and the way Snow White and the Huntsman bungles this might be its most baffling mistake, especially given the Twilight-adjacent fanbase they're aiming for. Stewart, giving a nicely rounded performance in a badly written role, does spark up a nice chemistry with Hemsworth, which should have made for an easy and juicy conflict when William arrives to join the fight. But Sanders, who either doesn't know how to direct his actors or doesn't bother with them when there's CGI scenery to adjust, doesn't give us any emotions to invest in at all, leaning instead over and over on the same portentous notes of good vs. evil, fate and loyalty and all the other things you've seen done better in better fantasy epics. Sanders has approached a classic fairy tale with a few strong visual ideas and a very game Charlize Theron, and it's almost impressive how little he's managed to make of it.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich