Look no further than the growing abundance of Grimm-inspired television series to see that live-action retellings of the fairytale classics are one of the year’s defining trends. But even with the recent saturation of familiar princesses and knights resurfacing, it’s still hard to understand why 2012 has seen two big-budget adaptations of the familiar tale of Snow White. While Tarsem Singh’s “Mirror Mirror” takes a much more playful, campy take on its princess’s journey, first-time feature filmmaker Rupert Sanders spins a tale much more rooted in the visual. But while at times this dark retelling hints at imagination, it slips into the generic and fails to bring its central characters to life.
The movie’s most haunting acuity comes in the form of Charlize Theron’s (“Young Adult”) Ravenna, the evil queen who spellbounds her way into a grieving king’s heart. A young Snow White looks at her stepmother-to-be in awe of her beauty. But on their wedding night, Ravenna kills the king while whispering a biting, poignant soliloquy about a former king who ruined her and how men just use women for their own benefit. The film’s beginning stays close to Ravenna, exploring her complicated motives for coveting beauty, which she disdainfully regards as woman’s only source of power and influence. She’s damaged, full of visceral emotions. And these first unfoldings of the film are steeped in complex themes of vengeance, obsession, even possible insanity. Theron plays Ravenna with nuance and alluring movement, vulnerable one moment, volatile the next.
But the themes introduced at the inception flicker and fade by the time Snow (Kristen Stewart, “Twilight”) and her indistinct band of brethren become the narrative’s centerpiece. A psychological, smart story suddenly becomes a stilted epic. The story’s hero goes from damsel to Joan of Arc in an instant, and both the script and Stewart can’t seem to figure out who this girl is supposed to be. Stewart stumbles in her delivery and doesn’t quite have the commanding presence to fill the armor she dons to lead a revolution.
And the rest of the characters are too caricatured to be anything more than symbols and devices to decorate Snow White’s quest. Chris Hemsworth’s (“The Cabin in the Woods”) Huntsman is endearing, but is defined only by his melancholy. The presence of William (Sam Claflin, “United”), a childhood companion of Snow White, adds absolutely nothing to the story other than an unnecessary love triangle that seems to be contractually obligated for any movie starring Stewart. Sam Spruell (“The Hurt Locker”) brings a bewitching, disturbing malevolence to the queen’s brother Finn, but his near-sensual attachment to his sister remains — like so many of these characters’ purposes and facets — unexplored.
“Huntsman” is as obsessed with aesthetics as its villain, but the careful attention given to indelible, beautiful imagery isn’t seen in other aspects of the film — especially the dialogue, which excepting a few pulsing utterances from Ravenna, is colorless. Viewers are less likely to recall the attributes of the seven dwarves than the visual intricacies of “sanctuary,” the land of the fairies, reminiscent of “Avatar” in its exoticness and ethereal effects. Ravenna’s enchanting, shadowy wardrobe is just as defining to the character as her manic physicality.
Take away the sweeping landscapes, the swirling flocks of crows, the repeated image of three drops of dark red blood falling into whiteness, the phantom soldiers who shatter into shards of brilliantly black glass, the unsettling aging and de-aging of Ravenna’s features … what’s left is a tale of a fair, virginal princess whose heart, innocence and youth brings the walls of a fierce and monstrous queen tumbling down.
It’s a story remembered from childhood, and “Huntsman” adds no lasting newness or richness to the characters or their journey. It’s a black-and-white account of good triumphing over evil, a too-routine retelling with stylistic renovation and unfulfilled innovation.