After murdering the king on their wedding night, the wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) imprisons her stepdaughter, Snow White (Raffey Cassidy), fearing a prophecy that foretells the fair princess will seal her doom. She begins a reign of tyranny with her black magic drawing the lifeforce from young maidens to prolong her youth and beauty. Years later, the now grownup Snow White (Kristen Stewart) manages to escape. When Ravenna's knights fail to recapture the resourceful Snow, she assigns the gruff and embittered Eric the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) the task of retrieving her heart. In return, Ravenna promises to use her powers to resurrect Eric's dead wife. However, Eric and Snow White strike an unexpected bond. Together they escape into an enchanted forest of fairies and trolls, seeking allies to help take down the evil queen.
For most college students a homework assignment might mean a good grade at best, but writer Evan Dougherty managed to turn a term paper into his first professional screenplay. In doing so he inadvertently ignited the Snow White movie craze of 2012, a minor phenomenon that seemed to excite filmmakers more than filmgoers given Snow White and the Huntsman and its rival Mirror, Mirror were equally derided leaving the low-budget cash-ins Grimm's Snow White and Snow White - Curse of the Axe Man with little to leech off. In fact, the film itself was somewhat overshadowed by the tabloid frenzy surrounding Kristen Stewart's brief dalliance with director Rupert Sanders.
Yet it remains the most thematically-intriguing of the year's Snow White films and, for all its frustratingly fumbled attempts to expand the fairytale into a sub-Tolkien epic with dark psychological undertones, the scope of its ambition coupled with the occasional frisson of poetry and magic engender a surprising amount of good will. In its weaker moments, Snow White and the Hunstman is simply overblown but at its best the emphasis on the psychology of the characters, nuanced performances, triumphant art direction and masterful sound design suggest the kind of Snow White film Roman Polanski might have made. Exquisite cinematography by Greig Fraser leaves this among the most beautiful looking films of 2012 while newcomer Sanders proves up to the task of handling both the subtler aspects of the drama while delivering eye-catching spectacle.
A lack of consistency proves its biggest problem. Dougherty's script received additional input from writer-director John Lee Hancock and Oscar-nominated scribe Hossein Amini. There is the sense each writer carried a different concept of what the film was going to be and the producers mashed all three into the end result. There is a pinch of Twilight (2008), a sprinkling of Tolkien, even a little of Hayao Miyazaki given the forest realm with its enchanting array of monsters and magical animals evokes similar scenes in Princess Mononoke (1997). The plot pulls in too many directions, tantalising with promising plot threads and character concepts yet relying too heavily on fairytale logic to fill the gaps.
Aside from an admittedly dodgy Scottish accent, Chris Hemsworth gives a gregarious performance. His huntsman is a perfectly acceptible love interest but this story has to have a Prince Charming, hence the awkward inclusion of William (Sam Claflin), an ace archer of royal blood whose history with Snow results in a Twilight style love triangle that goes frustratingly unresolved. Things take a surprisingly long time before the dwarves enter the picture. As essayed by a well-chosen roster of great British character actors, including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris and Irishman Brian Gleeson, with their faces digitally grafted onto small bodies (which drew protest from the organization, the Little People of America), there are solid collective yet oddly unmemorable, possibly because they all seem to be playing Grumpy.
While the film does not use the characters to their best advantage they have been crafted with genuine care. Each proves wounded in some way, Eric nursing his grief over his wife's murder in a manner similar to Snow's fragile emotional state after years of imprisonment and abuse. The strange empathic connection between Snow and Ravenna proves especially interesting as far from simple hatred the women seem pitted against each other more by circumstance and share mutual sorrow. Given the Disney archetype supposedly no longer cuts it as a role model for young girls, the film re-imagines Snow White as a gutsy, near feral Goth action heroine. Few are better suited to such an interpretation than Kristen Stewart. While her character might as well be Bella in medieval garb, she brings admirable conviction to the role. With Charlize Theron as the Wicked Queen the film has a hard time convincing us she isn't the fairest of them all, but the accomplished actress gives an interestingly humane reading of her role. Self-loathing accompanies Ravenna's every evil act. She emerges a woman deeply damaged by past injustice and almost sympathetic, something Snow herself recognises during their compelling and ambiguous final confrontation.
Like a lot of revisionist fairytales, the film is at times overly solemn yet after a decade mired in the sneering sarcasm of the Shrek series, it is pleasing to see a fairytale dare to be sincere in striving for romance and swashbuckling spectacle. It remains a hard film to evaluate. Flawed, but often endearing.