Snow White and the Huntsman a little more than "Mirror Mirror" thanks to the casting of Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth but still had expectations too low to motivate me to see the film in the theater. However, if there's anything really great about low expectations it's that they're very easy to exceed. Luckily for me, "Snow White and the Huntsman" did manage to do that.
If "Mirror Mirror" is a cream puff, then I must compare "Snow White and the Huntsman" to a big, colorful trifle. Visually the movie is just stunning. I almost wish I had seen it on the big screen just because it was so beautiful- and I wouldn't have felt it was a waste of money had taken the time to see it when it first came out. It is by turns Gothic and horrible when set in the dark forest and full of wonder and color when the setting moves to the fairy sanctuary. There are echoes of Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth" "Hellboy") in the spectacle even if it never quite reaches that level of weird. The setting gives it a rich texture and the casting mostly adds to the layering and depth, with one notable exception.
The story of "Snow White" has always been one about vanity. Interpretations vary but the usually accepted tale is one of jealousy on the part of the aging Queen as she sees Snow White surpass her as the "fairest of the all." But "Snow White and the Huntsman" attempts to create a narrative that goes beyond simple envy and bases the Queen's power on her ability to hang on to her youth and beauty. Charlize Theron is a great pick to play Queen Ravenna. She's a stunning woman and audiences need no convincing to believe that she could bewitch the King into marrying her and she doesn't hold back in her performance as a woman who isn't just desperate but completely unhinged. The script offers some back story, however brief, and Theron commits to it fully. I wouldn't say it's fun, precisely, to watch her pace and scream her rage at the other characters and her stridency walks a fine line between believable and wearying to watch. But before that part of the story can be overplayed the plot moves on to the main bulk of the film and focuses on Snow White.
Snow White (Kristen Stewart) spends most of her life imprisoned in a tower after Ravenna kills the King. Her captivity is explained by a throwaway line suggesting that "royal blood" may be useful to Ravenna at some point but it's a flimsy, unconvincing device. Yet it pales in comparison to the terrible casting of Stewart in the part of Snow White. I haven't been a follower of Stewart's career. I've never had any interest in "Twilight" but I have heard mutterings of Stewart's lackadaisical acting skills and it is a well deserved criticism. There are so many shortcomings in her portrayal it's hard to know where to start...
First off, for a young woman who has spent most of her formative years in a tower, there is no wonder, amazement or horror on her face as she returns to the world after a long absence. Everything is greeted with a slightly quizzical brow and an even slighter smile or frown depending on the circumstances. But I could overlook that flaw as her reactions aren't really written into the script as part of the dialog. Where the film really falls apart is when it attempts to persuade the audience that Stewart's Snow White possesses a character that captivates all who know her. She's said to virtually glow with purpose and has a charm so strong that even the animals can't help but kneel at her feet. But when William (Sam Claflin) the son of Duke Hammond muses on her beauty and charisma to the Huntsman (Hemsworth) it's laughably out-of-sync with Stewart's performance.
And Stewart only continues to suffer in comparison the more she interacts with the rest of the cast. Hemsworth is the kind of the guy who owns the screen with his masculinity. He doesn't have to have to do much to make you want to watch him and just as he easily conveys Thor's stouthearted goodness in "The Avengers" he is no less adept at conveying his grief at the loss of his wife with little more than a soulful gaze. Part of the plot in "Huntsman" hints at the possibility of a love triangle between Hemsworth, Claflin and Stewart but it's impossible to believe that someone as full of energy as Hemsworth would find the lifeless Stewart appealing. It must be said that the script doesn't do Stewart any favors either. The speech she gives to rally the troops against Ravenna is clunky on its own, but even more awkward when given by Stewart.
The dwarves, always essential to a Snow White story, are present but not integral to the plot. Which is a shame because the casting included Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins- two men I'm always happy to see on screen as long as possible. The apple and the kiss are also there but slightly tweaked to give the film its own unique sensibility and all of it comes together fairly well. The smartest thing about the film is that it doesn't particularly attempt to pit Theron and Stewart against each other in a contest of beauty. Ravenna is really fighting the ravages of time and the threat of Snow White's purity-of-character is really the 'fairest' characteristic that threatens her rule. But when the two women come face-to-face it's hard to think they should have been pitted against each other in any way. Theron is tall, gorgeous and imposing. Stewart is slight of stature and, while very pretty, lacks the forcefulness that Theron conveys so effortlessly. Snow White's defeat of Ravenna is a letdown because it just isn't convincing. You know she'll prevail because the tale of Snow White says she must, but if this story existed in the real world Ravenna would wipe the floor with Snow White.
Ultimately "Snow White and the Huntsman" is a very uneven film. It's beautiful and atmospheric and I could spend all day in its lush setting. Most of the actors do a fine job and if Snow White had been cast with a young woman who could convey some emotion (Jennifer Lawrence or Dakota Fanning for example) it could have really earned the comparisons some have made to films like "Lord of the Rings." But between Stewart's wooden portrayal and a wobbly script the movie can only be said to be passably good, but not great.