Snow White and the Huntsman

Traditional fairy-tales are built on archetypes, right? The hero, the villain, the elder, the fool; for all their seeming richness, for all their gleaming jewels and gorgeous settings our favourite Grimm tales are actually fairly easy to pull apart. This makes them perfect for two things – telling simple, beautiful tales of the forces of good and evil, or providing splendid, if precarious, foundations for more complex tales. The trouble with Snow White and the Huntsman is that it’s determined to have it both ways – sketching out barely-there characters whose intentions never waver and then forcing them on a convoluted quest that attempts to endow them with depths they never earn.

To be fair to director Rupert Sanders, he’s eager to engage with the power of the fairytale from the off: beginning with a gravelly “once upon a time” voice-over from Chris Hemsworth (our titular Huntsman) tiredly marking through the story we all know so well. A happy kingdom, a lost queen, an evil, seductive usurper and a beguiled king; a young girl imprisoned, a kingdom plunged into darkness and a new reign of terror rising. Indulging in the delicious violence of it all (watching a hard-eyed Charlize Theron plunge a dagger into her new husband’s chest on their wedding night isn’t quite what you expect from the opening of a 12A), it’s clear that this is no bedtime story. This Snow White is sombre, serious and heavy with importance – you can forget your talking mice, your gleaming costumes and cheery singalongs, this fairyland is all dark corridors, great steel swords and flickering, menace-ridden candlelight.

It’s a confident beginning to what is actually a very confident film, barely employing ten minutes of exposition before its first, gorgeous battle sequence between the Queen’s forces and that of the Kingdom – complete with phantom riders, splintering soldiers and endless shards of black glass exploding from every hit. Director’s certainly got an opinion, is my point.

But imprisoned young princesses are wont to grow up, and this one is no exception to the rule. We meet her again as a forlorn but ever so well-lit Kristen Stewart, saying the Lord’s Prayer to the walls of her tower. The Queen, it seems, keeps her hypnotising beauty by drinking in the souls of young maidens, but times are getting hard, and hers is a thirst that only grows with time. Upon learning from her magic mirror (an oozing, golden affair) that immortality can be hers only if she eats poor, pure old Snow White’s heart, she orders that the princess is brought to her. But as luck would have it the young scamp escapes – stumbling through a ravine of human waste and into The Dark Forest. The queen is – fairly justifably – almost mad with rage, and summons a local huntsman (Hemsworth) to carry out her capture. But will the stern, obviously-going-to-fall-in-love-with-Kristen-Stewart young man keep his word? Or will he just obviously fall in love with Kristen Stewart and chill with some hilarious dwarves instead? Tricky.

Snow White and the Huntsman does a lot of things right. The various settings are beautifully realised, from the lofty, ruined walls of Snow White’s home castle to the genuinely frightening, hallucination-like horrors of the forest – admittedly taking a lot of OH NO BAD TREES inspiration from Disney’s classic 1937 effort. At one stage we are enveloped in a magical land of fairies (seriously) and despite the appearance of cheerfully fluffy animals and cutesy supernatural forces it’s all handled with deftness and fun, never veering towards the saccharine or the self-consciously weird – take note, Burton. The dwarves themselves are wonderful; a wise-cracking, deeply refreshing band including Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsden and Ray Winstone, but are introduced to the tale far too late, basically picking up a narrative that has already sunk under the sullen weight of its own worries rather than sustaining a story that flies.

The problem with characters who have names like “Huntsman”, and places that have names like “Dark Forest” is that a balance between keeping everything beautifully stylised and emotionally interesting is very difficult to achieve. Theron is suitably imposing and impressive as Evil Queen Ravenna, but she can do this sort of psychotic, tinged-with-a-great-fear stuff standing on her head, it’s more furrowed-brow brooding for Kristen Stewart and Hemsworth basically keeps his head down and growls his way to the final credits. Attempting to tick all the key narrative boxes (poisoned apple, artful disguise, a deep, sexy-based sleep) as well as being determined to keep the audience guessing results in a lumpy, paceless story that undermines the tale’s inherent simplicity, and throwing in another love interest in the form of childhood friend William adds nothing but another complication to fight gracelessly out of.

All in all, there’s certainly no doubting Sanders’ vision. In his debut feature he and cinematographer Greig Fraser have managed to create a consistently gorgeous world, complete with creatures both delightful and frightening. But if we’ve learnt anything from his queen Ravenna it’s that ambition for ambition’s sake never ends well – rein in your hungry reign, Mr Sanders, and let’s see what tales you can really tell.

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