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A bold rethinking of a familiar old story and striking design elements are undercut by a draggy midsection and undeveloped characters in Snow White and the Huntsman. After the campy family farce of Mirror, Mirror, this second revisionist take of the year on the 19th century fairy tale strides out deadly serious and in full armor, not to mention with more costume changes for Charlize Theron than a Lady Gaga concert. Designed to appeal to teen and young-adult girls and guys, this muscular PG-13 action adventure conspicuously lacks romance but should get a good box-office ride on the shoulders of stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth.
The teeing up is dramatic, to say the least, giving a swift and dire account of the malevolent usurpation of the throne of a rugged waterfront kingdom by Ravenna (Theron), a stunning blonde who infiltrates from enemy territory, bewitches the widowed monarch and dispatches him on their wedding night. The king’s daughter is kept prisoner in a high tower until her maturity, at which point the queen’s mirror — in this case a giant golden plate that morphs into a molten statue — informs her that the status of fairest in the land has shifted to Snow White (Stewart), who represents the queen’s greatest threat as well as her salvation.
All through this, the visual elements are riveting, with production designer Dominic Watson and costume designer Colleen Atwood making major statements with their fabulously detailed and rich-looking creations. Initially based on blacks, whites and reds, the color scheme is slowly expanded to embrace a rich, carefully calculated array of hues, which first-time director Rupert Sanders, whose background is in commercials, knows how to show off to maximum effect.
Woe be to anyone who would permit Snow White to escape. But since the guilty party is the queen’s albino-ish enforcer brother Finn (Sam Spruell), this unfortunate fellow is merely obliged to follow her into the aptly named Dark Forest, to which she has perilously fled and from which the dirty, unschooled teenager can only be rescued by a drunken warrior (Hemsworth), another widower, who has nothing to lose.
Sanders shows a skilled hand for conjuring up dramatic contexts, presenting characters, making actors look good and stirring up threatening moods. He’s less effective at maintaining interest over the long haul of the midsection’s lengthy journey, as the huntsman leads Snow White through the dreaded forest to a village of women and children and on to a land known as Sanctuary, a once-enchanted home to dwarfs, sprites and unique animals that has come upon hard times since the evil queen has been in power.
Although this interlude has its charms, stemming from the creature creations as well as the from the lightly amusing characterizations of the little guys by normally robust actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Eddie Marsan, the protracted odyssey feels especially flat because it’s not marked by any deepening of the personalities of the princess and her blade-toting escort or any significant alterations in their relationship. Hemsworth’s soldier seems too loaded and hung up on his late wife to think too seriously about Snow White, but even if he did, he’d have to defer to William (Sam Claflin), the princess’s childhood friend and presumed intended, who turns up (with this season’s obligatory weapon, the bow and arrow) to join the good fight and install Snow White on her throne back home where she belongs.
Every so often, the film cuts back to the castle to reveal the queen in distressed states of aging and miraculous rejuvenation, the latter alarmingly achieved by sucking the youth out of younger victims. This royal would seem to be a self-made vampire of sorts as well as a forerunner of contemporary youth-obsessed women willing to do almost anything to maintain their beauty and allure.
So this is a film of moments, of arresting visuals, marked seriousness, sometimes surprising imagination and with nothing on its mind, really, except to provide the conventional reassurance of installing a rightful royal on the throne. It’s also a film in which you can’t help but behold and compare the contrasting beauty of two of the most exceptional-looking women on the screen today, Stewart and Theron. Sanders studies both of them closely and from many angles, with Stewart nearly always maintaining her ethereal air clenched by angst and determination and Theron expressing a will and mercilessness to rival any despot. Despite the narrow ranges their roles require, both command one’s attention throughout. Required in their own ways to be gaze-worthy, Hemsworth and Claflin bear up in far more constricted parts.
Craft and technical contributions are all first-rate. James Newton Howard has composed an unusually somber and nuanced full orchestral score that helpfully amplifies the story’s dark moods and currents.
Opens: June 1 (Universal)
Production: Roth Films
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Sam Claflin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Vincent Regan, Lily Cole
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenwriters: Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty
Producers: Joe Roth, Sam Mercer
Executive producers: Palak Patel, Gloria Borders
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Dominic Watkins
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editors: Conrad Buff, Neil Smith
Music: James Newton Howard
Visual effects supervisors: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brensan
PG-13 rating, 128 minutes
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