Photo by courtesy Universal Pictures
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the biggest bitch of them all?" That is the real question never posed by the Evil Stepmother Queen (Charlize Theron) in "Snow White and The Huntsman."
Understandably, such candor would defy the sugarcoated purpose of the fairy tale genre, which tends to put a soft focus on female virgins victimized by evil stepmothers. They then become feckless heroines and snag a good-looking man along the way. In a post-modern era, the virgin princess must also be a warrior capable of wielding the sword of death and destruction for the sake of peace. She then will marry and live happily ever after.
The new adaptation of "Snow White," directed by Rupert Sanders, opens with the comforting words of "once upon a time." The camera zooms into a lush winter paradise, where a single red rose blooms in defiance of the cold and wet snow. Pricking her delicate fingers on the thorns, the Good Queen (Liberty Ross) gazes at this mysterious botanical wonder and wishes: "If only I had a child as white as snow with blood-red lips like my blood on the snow." These aren't her exact words, but you get the gist––the language smacks of archaic triteness. The queen's wish comes true: She births a beautiful baby girl, whom she names Snow White (Kristen Stewart).
Beauty built on blood and snow forewarn us that Snow White's life will not be a rose garden or even a blossom of dubious origins. Through trickery, deception and black magic, the King (Noah Huntley) marries the villainous Ravenna, aka Evil Stepmother Queen, after the Good Queen's death.
And so the rivalry begins. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Ravenna asks. This magnificent mirror oozes a glob from its reflective surface that morphs and stretches vertically into a dark shape that speaks. Very impressive. Ravenna learns from her magical mirror that Snow White threatens her position. The queen and her creepy brother (Sam Spruell) hire the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to find Snow White in the Dark Woods, where she fled after escaping the castle tower she was imprisoned in for most of her life. Snow White is remarkably fit for a young woman who has spent most of her life in a tower with only birds to befriend her, and she demonstrates uncanny gifts of survival––she's certainly not afraid to poke out an eye or two.
Underneath all that fake questioning about "who is the fairest in the land" simmers an epic cat fight, at some points as compelling as two girls pulling out chunks of hair and scratching out flesh on the school playground. On some offbeat level, Sanders' film rendition of "Snow White" may be one of the greatest subversive feminist film ever made. The real power brokers in this fairy tale wear dresses over their pants––literally. (The pants are convenient when you need to jump off a cliff into raging white water or when a good-looking huntsman rips off your skirt in the Dark Woods). All of the men in this film serve one of two mistresses: Ravenna, the Evil Stepmother Queen (Theron); or Snow White, the Rightful Queen (Stewart).
Unlike Snow White, who exudes about as much life as a blow-up princess doll, Ravenna plays for keeps and keeps it real (well sort of). "Do you hear that? It's the sound of battles fought and lives lost. It once pained me to know that I am the cause of such despair. But now their cries give me strength. Beauty is my power," she says. Theron's performance transforms this fairy-light tale into passable entertainment. She's fabulous and utterly believable. The language is never false, even when she wobbles out dialogue written by a posse of writers. Theron embodies every mean pore of her character.
The supporting cast provides the gusto lacking in the hackneyed story. Chris Hemsworth ("Thor," "The Avengers") doesn't have to act to be watchable, and his role as the Huntsman doesn't offer him any acting challenges. Here, Hemsworth is big and brawny and wields an axe like the god Thor. You could swear that he's played this role before. The dwarves, however, are particularly delightful.
Stewart's Snow White hits her trademark combination of glassy-eyed stare and desperate monotone. Her character succumbs to fate without putting up a struggle. But then, she is the chosen one.
This movie suffers from "been there, done that." When Snow White speaks to the troops, she comes off as a fractured fairy-tale version of Joan of Arc. While the visual sensibility of the movie is breathtaking, it feels like a cinematic shake of "Lord of the Rings," "Braveheart" and "Shrek." This movie never elevates beyond a state of recycled trash art, but then it is a fairy tale and it's been done and redone and done forevermore. Please, no more.