The Grimm fairy tale returns to its grey and gory origins in "Snow White and the Huntsman," the second "Snow White" remake of 2012.
Unlike the gorgeous but dizzy "Mirror Mirror," "Huntsman" is more sword and sorcery, a film of battles and swordfights, murder and revenge. But for all the excitement of this visually striking action fantasy set in a land of mud and maggots, it's the familiar story elements that work the best. Things don't take on a workable tone until those devilish dwarfs show up, an hour into the proceedings.
And thank heaven for the Huntsman, a character typically given short shrift in films of this tale. When Chris "Thor" Hemsworth swaggers (and staggers, for he is drunk) onto the screen, this sometimes ponderous movie gets a much-needed taste of levity.
Charlize Theron takes her shot at going over the top as Ravenna, the sorceress who marries the widowed king and kills him. The new queen fears his daughter, Snow White -- "the face of true beauty in this kingdom" -- will be her "undoing."
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This script (by Evan Daugherty, Hossein Amini and John Lee Hancock) focuses on Ravenna's motivations. This is an evil queen with a serious grudge against men -- who "use" and "ruin" women and cast them aside. Ravenna plans to beat this system, thanks to her ability to suck the youth and beauty out of others, and thanks to that "mirror mirror on the wall."
Snow White grows up to be Kristen "Twilight" Stewart, all dark hair and fair skin and suggestive lips. No wonder the older woman is afraid. The Huntsman is first hired to track the fleeing princess, but changes sides in a heartbeat.
And in the middle of their flight from the evil queen's equally evil brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), Snow White and the Huntsman stumble into a gang of dwarfs.
Of all the effects on display here -- the liquid metal magic mirror, the queen's aging and vampire-like ability to regain her youth, the haunted forests and enchanting fairies -- the dwarves are the most impressive. First-time director Rupert Sanders uses forced perspective and prosthetics and a few other tricks to cast an impressive array of character actors in these roles, and not just the best dwarf actors available.
Thus we get the wicked twinkle of Ian McShane, the sour-faced annoyance of Toby Jones, the testy befuddlement of Eddie Marsan and the hilarious cluelessness of Nick Frost, all convincingly transformed into little people. They're just as cute as the characters inevitably are. But they seem more unruly and more dangerous than the septet in "Mirror Mirror."
In the battle of the dueling queens, Oscar winner Theron comes up short against the regally evil Julia Roberts of "Mirror Mirror." Theron, at a loss in playing this embittered and cunning character's power, tosses epic tantrums and turns into a shrieking harpy at every turn. She seems off for much of the film.
The lovely Stewart makes an unlikely action heroine, better in the romantic clinches than in a fight. A good actress on most days, she tames some of her "Twilight" trademarks (playing with her hair, panting to show passion), just not that much. But does anybody else think that a mirror that proclaims her "fairest" over Charlize Theron needs glasses?
It's too long, and the many new characters and settings make "Snow White and the Huntsman" lose track of its main thread for stretches. On the whole, it's a more engrossing, more lively re-imagining of the classic tale than "Mirror Mirror." But it's not going to make anybody forget the Disney version.