Director Rupert Sanders is known for making television commercials that look like fairy tales, with angels falling from the sky for a guy who uses Axe body spray and a boy battling samurai warriors with Excalibur to sell X-Box game consoles. With his first feature film he has made a fairy tale that looks like a commercial, with every frame filled with eye-popping images and a lot of dramatic posing. A 30 second version would have made a great commercial for perfume or skin cream. As a movie, it is just so-so, with uneven performances and dodgy pacing. After over 100 movie versions of the classic fairy tale about the girl whose lips are red as blood, skin is white as snow, and hair black as ebony and the evil stepmother who orders her taken into the woods and killed, the Disney animated version is still the fairest of them all.
Like Tarsem’s superior “Mirror Mirror,” released earlier this year, this version makes Snow White into an action heroine, leading the battle against her evil stepmother. Charlize Theron plays Ravenna, who literally bewitches a king grieving for his late wife. She murders him on their wedding night, taking over his kingdom with the help of her creepy brother/henchman Finn (Sam Spruell) and locking the young princess in a grubby tower. Ravenna cares for just one thing — eternal beauty. She swans around looking haughty in fabulous Colleen Atwood costumes that can best be described as haute predator couture, with all kinds of intricate spikes and skulls. Everything is either sharp or poisonous and laced-up tightly, with talon-like finger-armor. She stalks and flounces nicely but when it is time for her to get ferocious she is all eye-rolls and screeches, a bad version of Carol Burnett doing Norma Desmond.
Ravenna has an enormous gold mirror that looks like giant frisbee hanging on the wall, and the robed creature who lives inside assures her that she is the fairest in the land. She also gets some reassurance from skeevy Finn, with whom she shares the creepiest brother watching his sister take a bath scene since “Bunny Lake is Missing.” You also know he’s twisted from his terrible haircut, a sort of medieval mullet.
While Ravenna is bathing in thick cream and literally sucking the life out of young women, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is still locked in the tower. For years. But she stays so pure that when the birds come to perch on her window, she does not grab and eat them. She just allows them to show her a loose nail she can use as a weapon, which comes in very handy as Finn arrives shortly to indicate some predatory tendencies and take her to the queen. The mirror guy has informed Ravenna that Snow White has come of age. Her purity is so powerful that she alone has the power to destroy Ravenna, says the mirror. But her power is so great that if Ravenna can eat her heart, she will no longer need touch-ups and refills. Her beauty will stay as it is forever.
When Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest, where everything is creepy and scary and even Ravenna has no power. The only person who knows the Dark Forest well enough to bring her back is The Huntsman (no name), played by “The Avengers'” Thor, Chris Hemsworth. Ravenna promises to bring his dead wife back to life if he will capture the prisoner and he agrees to go. But Snow White isn’t the only one who gets tripped up in the forest. Sanders gets much too enmeshed in all of the tree-branches-turning to snakes-style special effects and the forest section of the film goes on much too long, with at least three too many set-ups and confrontations, including the return of Finn. And it gets worse when they emerge into a sort of Light Forest fairyland, when the story really starts to go haywire, with a whole “chosen one” theme that had people in the audience groaning. Stewart is out of her league. She is fine playing characters like the vulnerable Bella in “Twilight,” but when called on here to inspire the troops, she sounds like she is ordering pizza.
And then there are the dwarfs. It is hard to imagine that in 2012 anyone could think it is appropriate to cast full-size actors, no matter how talented and no matter how persuasive the special effects, as little people. It is a shame to see Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and others in roles that should be played by little people. By the time they show up, the plot has fallen apart, with an unnecessary love triangle and a preposterous encounter with a troll. Nearly everyone’s accents waver, some of the dialogue is truly awful, and I am certain no one in a fairy tale should ever use the word “okay.” Recasting Snow White as the hero of her own story is long overdue and production designer Dominic Watkins creates some real magic. But this is not only not the best Snow White; it’s not the best one in the last four months.
Parents should know that this film includes fantasy and battle violence with many characters injured and killed, and some graphic and disturbing images including bloody wounds, bugs, and snakes. There is brief partial nudity and some scenes of a brother watching his sister bathe and then suggestively touching a young woman in a predatory manner.
Family discussion: How did Ravenna’s costumes reflect her character? How did the three drops of blood spilled by both characters’ mothers show their connection?
If you like this, try: Some of the more than 100 other movie versions of this story including the recent “Mirror Mirror” and the Disney animated classic