When the king is murdered by his new bride Ravenna (Theron), his daughter Snow White is locked up for seven years. After her escape, the teenage Snow (Stewart) is pursued by Ravenna, who hires a grieving, sozzled Huntsman (Hemsworth) to bring her back. Dwarves, animals, a troll, an apple and a battle follow.
Once upon a time isn’t enough. Once, it would seem, restricts your potential audience far, far too much. Teen girls weaned on Twilight are valuable, but if you only tell Snow’s (Kristen Stewart) story, how will you draw in their boyfriends and brothers? Make sure ‘Prince Charming’ (actually Sam Claflin’s mini-duke William) is handy with a bow, and get Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to trade his hammer for a whopping great chopper. But what about the older female audience? Throw some weight (and a little sympathy) into the story of the wrinkle-dreading Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). And their husbands? Recast the dwarves as pugnacious inebriates you’d more expect to find slumped in Paddy Power than cheerfully toiling down a diamond mine. While eye-catching, and impressively (Middle-)earthy, this latest take on the Grimm fairy tale, closely following Tarsem Singh’s daffy, candy-caned Mirror Mirror, doesn’t so much aim high as aim broad, and it is at the cost of good, old-fashioned storytelling.
Snow White & The Huntsman lacks strength of perspective and suffers an excess of superfluous characters. There’s a clue in the fact that this is the take with eight dwarves. The juggling of too many characters is a blockbuster weakness typically indulged in sequels, but this gets straight to it. Few earn their right to be here, as they did, say, in Avengers Assemble. The dwarves are so underwritten, it’s hard to make a case for even their presence in this version of Grimms’ tale, given Hemsworth’s moody, grimy and needlessly Scottish-accented Huntsman already has their job, with added rugged sexiness, too.
Although that doesn’t mean you won’t wish for more dwarf action. Smart casting compensates, and it is a pleasure to see the likes of Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones and Ray Winstone playing Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits playing the ‘seven’ dwarves. Unsurprisingly, they supply the majority of lighter moments. “We’re promised gold and what do we get? Poo!” whines Frost’s big-lugged Nion as the crew wade through a sewer. “Wurgh! That looks like one of mine!” grunts Winstone’s Gort from under his bleached Mr. T hairdo. You get the idea.
Another casting coup is Theron as Ravenna. Like an icy Hitchcock blonde seeking widespread payback for all the indignities once inflicted upon her, Theron makes the Queen a force of coiled, cold fury with an enforced, almost reptilian economy of movement. This is convincing body language for a woman who knows she is long past her best-before date. Even her vocal register feels a little too old, a little too low, a little too slowed. It’s absorbingly creepy, right down to the insinuation that all this ‘Man In The Mirror’ business, with its showy, flowy VFX, is just a fabrication of her own parchment-fragile mind.
It’s a shame we can’t lavish such praise on her pure-hearted nemesis. Not that Kristen Stewart is inherently bad as Snow. Just that she needs to be directed away from all those little tics which five-or-six bouts of Bella have ingrained in her. Stewart won’t stop doing that thing where she looks like she’s just tasted something unpleasant then smiles like it hurts a little bit. It’s as if Snow White spends the whole movie having just taken a bite of that poisoned apple.
It’s perhaps one symptom of the fact that this ambitious picture is carried in on the shoulders of a first-timer, Rupert Sanders. Yet his commercials background revealed a budding visual style which blooms impressively in this vast landscape. Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro and, especially, that other one-time ad wunderkind, Ridley Scott, are evident inspirations. (Sanders even stages his climactic beach battle just an hour’s drive north of the extremely similar one in Scott’s Robin Hood.)
There are deft touches, though. Snow White’s flight into the hate-blackened Dark Forest stands out, with the fugitive princess inhaling fungal spores and suffering the bad trip of a lifetime. The forest floor becomes a carpet of dead songbirds, shadowy forms lurch from the gloam, a bat-winged demon screeches down from the malformed canopy. Later, in one virtuoso flourish, we see a depleted Ravenna flailing on the ground having just metamorphosed back into human form from that of a flock of crows, her black-feathered mantle and cloak now a glistening oil slick, her avian offcuts flailing desperately like seabirds in an Exxon death-bath.
So, for all its flaws, this remains a promising debut. We would like to see what Sanders can do next. Although, judging by all that dangling sequel bait, it will likely be Snow White & The Huntsman II. Because, clearly, Once Upon A Time is never enough.
A strong visual style tussles with flaccid storytelling in this ambitious retelling of Grimm. It won’t exactly have Walt Disney spinning in his secret ice chamber, but you may wish they spent more time worrying about what exactly the film is than who it’s for.