Snow White and the Huntsman

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The first Snow White adaptation of 2012, “Mirror Mirror,” took the sunny, kid-friendly route – and thus couldn’t be more different from the second one, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which is serious and grown-up. And why shouldn’t it be? We’ve seen intense, mature films based on comic books and superheroes; why not one based on a fairy tale?

When I say that “Snow White and the Huntsman” is “serious,” I don’t mean it’s humorless; just that it takes its fanciful, magic-tinged story seriously. No winking at the audience, no nods to the Disney cartoon. The film’s star, on the other hand, is humorless, or at least consistently comes across that way: it’s Kristen Stewart, lead frowner in the “Twilight” franchise. Granted, this Snow White doesn’t have a lot to smile about. Her royal parents dead, she has spent most of her teen years languishing in a castle prison while her vain sorceress stepmother, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), lets the kingdom go to seed. Escaping, hiding in the forest, and eventually aligning with an unnamed huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t cheer her up much, nor does befriending a flock of dwarfs.

The movie’s first act is its best, as director Rupert Sanders (a commercial guy making his film debut) establishes a bleak medieval world of decaying villages and drafty, echo-filled castles. The tone is harsh and unforgiving, the setting for what could turn out to be – and often is – a gripping fantasy story.

As the evil Ravenna, Charlize Theron is mean enough to be fearsome but human enough to be interesting. Assisted by her magic mirror (which takes an unexpectedly cool visual form) and her creepy albino brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), Ravenna lets her boundless self-doubt drive her to intense extremes. She wants to be prettiest in all the land, and to that end engages in rejuvenating processes both common (milk baths) and not (absorbing the life force of the young). But her vanity takes her further than mere physical beauty. She wants the peasants to think she’s the kindest in all the land, too, despite being far from it. Whatever traits are considered “good,” she wants to be thought of as possessing them in abundance.

She’s far more intriguing than Snow White, though I guess that’s often the case in these tales. The screenplay, credited to Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini (“Drive”), diverges from the familiar plot in a way that gives Snow White more of an active role in vanquishing evil and freeing her people – more to do after the wake-up kiss, in other words – but Stewart is so relentlessly bland and affectless that you’re liable to start rooting for Ravenna.

The film hints at a romantic triangle between Snow White, the huntsman, and a duke’s son (Sam Claflin), but it never develops. That can’t be pinned on the acting, though. Hemsworth is given enough dialogue and screen time to let his Thor-proven charisma shine through, and he does, even if some of his bickering with Snow White is disappointingly common. (“I’m staying away from you!” he says. “You’re trouble!”) But that poor duke’s son never stands a chance, with little screen time and almost no reason to be in the story at all.

When it’s focused on Good vs. Evil and the mechanics of the plot, the film is highly watchable – enchanting, even. Seamless special effects give the dwarfs the heads of recognizable actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, and Nick Frost among them), and there is magic in the mysteries of the forest and some of the story’s other creative embellishments. But when it’s over – and it’s over a good 15 minutes later than it should be – it hasn’t left much of an impact. Even Prince Charming can’t counteract Princess Dour.

B- (2 hrs., 7 min.; PG-13, some battle violence, brief mild sensuality.)

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