Los Angeles. It’s no wonder they keep remaking “Snow White,” since it seems like a male Hollywood mogul’s idea of a chick flick: Two women battle over who’s prettier, with the younger, hotter model eventually prevailing over the vain old soul-sucking, husband-killing witch.
Someone should set the story in Beverly Hills to make the message even clearer, but “Snow White and the Huntsman” takes place in yet another enormous castle perched above yet another enchanted forest.
Following the lead of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Huntsman” takes a traditionally passive lead character and turns her into a sword-wielding warrior woman. And while this newest fairy tale adaptation is a stronger and more coherent movie than “Alice” (not much of a feat there), it’s still something of a beautiful mess, with too many characters, occasionally sluggish pacing and a tone that veers frenetically between intense and campy.
Your evil queen this evening will be Ravenna (Charlize Theron), whose beauty and sorcery have allowed her to survive the ravages of time (and of various kings). Her latest victim is the recently widowed father of the beautiful Snow White, and after committing regicide, the queen exiles her stepdaughter to the tower.
While eating bird hearts and inhaling the life essence of beautiful young women helps a little, Ravenna eventually finds it harder and harder to maintain her youth and beauty, so when her magic mirror (which looks more like a gong) tells her she can be immortal by possessing the heart of the now-adult Snow White (Kristen Stewart), who is fairer and purer, the queen sends for the girl.
A bird whose wing Snow White had mended as a child helps the lass escape (this is the sort of thing that works way better in a Disney cartoon than in a live-action movie), so the queen hires the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track the runaway in the dark woods that few people can navigate. Once he realizes the queen’s treachery, the never-named huntsman accepts Snow White’s offer to transport her to a neighboring castle from which she can launch a war that will end Ravenna’s reign for good.
The movie never skimps on visual effects, from monsters made of glass shards to a hallucinatory and foreboding dark forest – although one moment featuring a multi-antlered white stag is such a rip-off of “Princess Mononoke” that Studio Ghibli should sue – but the characterizations are almost never as interesting as Colleen Atwood’s costumes. There will be lots of versions of Theron’s evil queen running around West Hollywood and Chelsea this Halloween; it’s a performance that’s about one part Tilda Swinton to 30 parts Faye Dunaway, and it’s the sort of over-the-top craziness that spawns midnight screenings for drunken audiences.
On the other end of the spectrum is Stewart, doing the petulant-teen routine that “Twilight” viewers have come to know so well over the years, with the added twist of becoming a boarding-school Saint Joan in the film’s final act.
Even swaddled in armor and chain mail, it’s hard to imagine this blank-faced debutante stirring an army to follow her to Forever 21, much less to battle against a powerful necromancer.
Speaking of “Twilight,” the movie gives Snow White two potential suitors – the Huntsman and Snow’s grown-up childhood beau William (Sam Claflin) – but it’s never particularly well delineated how either man is important to the story. It’s admirable to have a movie with a strong heroine who isn’t defined by her love interest(s), but if the guys are going to be around, we should know why, as well as how our heroine feels about them.
And then there are the dwarves: Earlier this year, “Mirror Mirror” managed to find a septet of compelling and funny actors who happened to be little people. “Huntsman” uses CG trickery to render well-known character actors like Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ian McShane, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost and Ray Winstone into the vertically-challenged forest dwellers who come to our heroine’s aid, and while they’re all engaging and amusing, I found myself thinking too much about the effects work that I was completely taken out of what little story there was by that point in the film.
Theron’s outrageous turn will no doubt inspire drag queens the world over, but beyond that, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is just another fairy tale that loses its way in the woods.