'Snow White' Saved by Dwarves
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This is the second live-action motion picture I've seen in 2012 taking off from the "Snow White" fairy tale, the first being the goofy but, to this reviewer at least, surprisingly engaging Tarsem-directed burlesque, "Mirror Mirror."
"Snow White and the Huntsman" is an entirely more serious affair. The movie is the feature directorial debut of Rupert Sanders, whose work in commercials includes a beautiful albeit fallaciously fanciful treatment of the conceit that hot female angels will give up their halos for a skinny Italian dude who wears Axe cologne or uses its body wash or what the hell ever. The guy does exhibit a pretty impressive visual facility. He's clearly studied period action cinema from Curtiz to Kurosawa to Bresson to Gilliam to Scott and more, not to mention various masters of fantastic cinema and surrealist-with-a-small-"s" visual artists, et cetera.
So here, aided immeasurably by cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Dominic Watkins, he brings an imaginative sumptuousness to the faux-medieval settings and the weird, wicked beauty secrets of evil queen/stepmother Ravenna, played with magnificent bravura by the magnificent Charlize Theron, whose idea of a restorative ablution is the creamiest milk bath ever portrayed on-screen.
Sanders is also game for the conceptual updating of the "Snow White" tale, which, as the title implies, does some substantial shifting of emphasis. The Disney version has the huntsman sparing Snow White's life in a moment of compassion, and this picture promotes him to a hero of sorts. This burly widower played by Chris Hemsworth is first seen as a belligerent drunk ("Hey, a fairy-tale 'Cat Ballou,'" I too-enthusiastically thought for a moment) who turns reluctant warrior who turns ... well, I won't spoil it for you if you don't see it coming. Suffice it to say that there are quite a few interesting new characters introduced here, including brave women who scar themselves to remain unmolested by the literally beauty-sucking Ravenna, but that the Prince Charming representative is among the least engaging.
For a while the movie chugs along serviceably. "Ho-hum," I was thinking for a bit. "Here's some really museum-quality cinematic action-fantasy art here, with studio notes." But then things pick up. How? Three words, as Hemsworth's character puts it: "Oh no. Dwarves." Yes, this version does have dwarves, and they're played by non-dwarf actors who've been reduced by special effects, and at least one of those actors hasn't been in a really big picture in some time. And they are feisty and different and delightful, and their ruminations on their loyalties to the kingdom and the young woman they acknowledge as their rightful queen help shift the picture into high gear, as does a shift from a dark forest to an enchanted wood that packs some of the movie's most magical visuals. After which the film goes in an unexpectedly "Braveheart"-meets-Joan of Arc direction, and does so well enough to be rousing and moving and worthy of a place alongside some of the classics of its two genres.
What of this picture's Snow White? I cannot tell a lie, it's true: For a fairly long stretch of the movie, Kristen Stewart just wasn't doing it for me. But she grows into her character, it seems, and eventually got this reviewer completely on her side. But the real find here is Hemsworth, whose climactic speech to a lost-in-a-spell Snow White is one of the movie's true highlights. I didn't cotton to him in "Thor," I liked him better still in "The Avengers," but he truly shines here. This slightly overstuffed entertainment rises, in part thanks to him, to one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer movie season so far.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.