Universal puts the grim back into Brothers Grimm with its epic reimagining of the Snow White fable. This time, in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” instead of a chirpy adolescent and snaggletoothed witch we get a warrior princess and sexy, power-mad vampira. Indeed, the shift to the dark side is so strong in this handsomely produced retelling by the folks who brought us “Alice in Wonderland,” Charlize Theron’s shrieking, bloodthirsty Ravenna easily upstages Kristen Stewart’s virtuous princess at every turn.
But that’s how it should be. As Stephen King and, for that matter, most Shakespearean scholars will tell you, evil is always more fun than sweetness and light, to say nothing of being a damn sight more photogenic.
In the classic fairy tale, the Huntsman is a bit player, who, sent to dispatch Snow White, takes pity on the girl instead. Here, as assayed by “Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth, he’s promoted to scruffy, charmingly dim love interest who first tracks Snowy through the Dark Forest, then becomes her guardian and champion.
Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Sam Claflin) is demoted to childhood pal/archer whose tender feelings are of a more, well, platonic nature.
Another intriguing twist: the seven dwarfs ‒ actually eight, counting Daddy Dwarf ‒ are anything but comic relief. They’re played as fierce protectors of the Enchanted Forest by well-known British actors whose legs have been shrunk by CG folds or whose faces have been digitally pasted on little people. Instead of those dopey and demeaning nicknames in the Disney version, they now answer to Beith (Ian McShane), Muir (Bob Hoskins), Nion (Nick Frost), Gort (Ray Winstone), Duir (Eddie Marsan), Quert (Johnny Harris), Gus (Brian Gleeson), and Coll (Tobey Jones).
While politically incorrect ‒ I would guess Little People of America, Inc. would have something to say about big people hogging roles that would ordinarily go to underemployed dwarf actors ‒ it makes for some interesting technical wizardry and ups the dramatic quotient considerably.
Directed by first-timer Rupert Sanders from a script that passed through numerous hands, “Snow White” like “Alice in Wonderland” proves an eye-catching mixed big. The pageantry, labyrinthine castle interiors, f/x and costumes (by Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood) are all pretty spectacular, especially the liquid-metallic mirror man and apoplectic bridge troll, the magical white stag and wood sprites (as good as anything in “Pan’s Labyrinth”), and Ravenna’s ravishing black-feather ensemble. Still, for all the visual treats, the film has a number of been-there-ogled-that dead spots which makes the two-hour-plus running time pass like three.
Stewart and Hemsworth are likable enough as the fugitive princess-turned-Joan of Arc and Han Solo-like sidekick; Sam Spruell as Ravenna’s hatchet-man brother is hiss-worthy; and Claflin makes a boringly noble Prince William, whose kiss has lost most of its spell-breaking oomph.
If you’ve caught any of the previews ‒ and given Universal’s media blitz, how could you not? ‒ you know this film is being sold on the basis of Theron’s deliciously over-the-top villainy. The lengths to which her queen goes to stave off the ravages of time are fun to behold, particularly the milk baths and soul-sucking embraces. Theron is at her best in the early scenes, when she depends mostly on angry scowls and ear steam. She’s less effective as the film wears on and she enters full banshee mode. “No loyalty! No loyalty!” she screeches. “I need her heart!”
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the hammiest one of all?
Why you, dear Queen.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN ✮✮1/2 With Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Spruell, Sam Claflin, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone. Directed by Rupert Sanders; scripted by Evan Dougherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini. 127 min. PG-13 (for violence, battle scenes, overall intensity)