Told and retold for centuries in many different cultures, even the most familiar fairy tales undergo a wide variety of permutations. The latest cinematic retelling of the Snow White story, the second to appear this season, demonstrates some of that potential for variation. Most viewers familiar with the basic content of the story — and that must include just about everyone in the audience — no doubt recognize the familiar plot and characters in the new version. The producers of "Snow White and the Huntsman," however, transform much of that material into something quite different from the brilliant Disney classic or its many sequels, remakes, and imitations, which include by the way, a porno version (shameful).
The movie begins with a back story, accompanied by a voice-over narration, explaining the history of Snow White's birth, introducing the witch Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and recounting Ravenna's rise to power. The witch first marries, then kills, Snow White's father, taking over his kingdom, imprisoning Snow White (Kristen Stewart), oppressing the populace, and turning the countryside into a wasteland. She maintains her ageless beauty by vampirically sucking the vitality out of a series of young women; when her magic mirror informs her that she no longer qualifies as the top looker in the kingdom, she sends her creepy brother, Finn (Sam Spreull), to bring her the princess.
Snow White escapes the clutches of the evil siblings and spends most of the movie fleeing Ravenna's magic and coping with the supernatural terrors of a nightmare landscape in a place called the Dark Forest. The script thus transforms the material of the fairy tale into something like a medieval epic, heavily influenced by the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, showing an episodic journey of the young maiden through countless perils, with several interruptions for combat with swords, maces, and axes.
That combat mostly involves the huntsman of the title (Chris Hemsworth), hired to find Snow White because Ravenna cannot work her magic in the Dark Forest; he falls for the princess and becomes her protector and defender. He swings his axe against Finn's supernatural cavalry, then later against Ravenna herself, who dissolves into a flock of crows and flies away. The Dark Forest resembles the sylvan landscape of "The Lord of the Rings," a dangerous, metamorphic place, with trees that move and menace, vines that turn into serpents, and an apparent chunk of earth that rises up as a monstrous troll.
The screenwriters constantly throw in more plot, more characters, more monsters, more battles, ultimately dissipating much of the charm of the familiar story. They retain the magic mirror — much spookier in this film — the poisoned apple, and even the seven dwarfs, who are not exactly the lovable gang of the animated feature. Although the crew in this incarnation doesn't include anyone named Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, or Doc, most of them seem pretty grumpy most of the time; they also, however, join with Snow White and the Huntsman to fight against Ravenna, Finn, and her dark army of supernatural warriors.
The remarkable special effects and the terrific cinematography overwhelm just about all the actors, who seem themselves dwarfed by the landscapes, the monumental interiors, and all the wonderful metamorphoses. Charlize Theron rages hysterically in most of her scenes, screaming her lines, delighting in the evil she inflicts, and chuckling lewdly when she sucks the life out of her young victims. The cornball dialogue limits the other actors, like Chris Hemsworth, who frequently mutters indistinctly, and Bob Hoskins as the blind leader of the dwarfs, who pronounces words of deeply sentimental nonsense.
The greatest problem of "Snow White and the Huntsman," unsurprisingly, resides in the person of the protagonist. Kristen Stewart demonstrates that her awful performances in the "Twilight" series were no fluke, since she reproduces almost exactly the facial expressions, the mannerisms, the attitudes of her previous starring role. Whatever the situation — an attack, a monster, a death, a rescue, etc. — she expresses a kind of muted anguish, like a prom queen who's misplaced her tiara. An actor of ineffable insipidity, who robs a frame of power as soon as she enters it, Stewart just about ruins the picture.