A ‘Grimm’ Fairy Tale

This dark reworking of Snow White is actually worthwhile

Better and more darkly imaginative than its headache of a coming-attractions trailer suggests, Snow White and the Huntsman follows another Snow White re-do, Mirror Mirror, into theaters by two months and two days. That’s not much time for audiences to get re-interested in another twist on a classic fairy tale. But they should.

The story elements going back to the early 19th-century Brothers Grimm version remain present, with tweaks. Snow White, the daughter of the king, endures the death of her mother and acquires a stepmom (stepqueen?) in suspiciously short order. The interloper with the aging issues here carries the name Ravenna, and her magic mirror comes with advanced digital properties and shape-shifting Terminator 2 quicksilver technology unavailable to the Grimm boys.

For years, Ravenna locks Snow White up in an unattractive wing of the seaside castle, and the kingdom goes to pot while the evil queen and her sniveling brother swan and skulk from morn to night. After a daring escape, Snow White is pursued by the huntsman of the title, under Ravenna’s “or else” decree.

There are dwarfs to be met, Shakespearean echoes aplenty (Bob Hoskins plays the wise old blind dwarf, a variation on King Lear’s Gloucester), an enchanted forest with sprites and a white stag. There is a kingdom to take back and a question to be answered above all others: Can Kristen Stewart act?

Yes, she can. No, her range isn’t infinite. Certain behavioral and technical fallbacks—the quick-exhale-then-grin, for example—persist in fantasy roles as well as realistic ones. But from the beginning, certainly from Into the Wild onward, Stewart’s emotional honesty and self-effacing, slightly wary charisma have served her well.

Snow White and the Huntsman represents an intelligent stretch for the actress best known for the teen-dating guide known as Twilight (three down, one to go). With respectable success, she handles a suggestion of a British dialect (she’s no Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, in other words), and while this Snow White is rarely required to speechify—typical rejoinders here run along the lines of “Where are we?”—a rousing monologue setting up the climactic battle inspired by Henry V actually works.

This is a violent film. It’s rougher, in fact, than The Hunger Games. Ravenna, played with fierce, wild-eyed commitment by Charlize Theron, survives on animal, aviary and human hearts, and stays young by sucking the life, the youth, out of her victims. The dwarfs, played by Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones and other ace character men, are dispossessed miners forced to the margins of society, rough wee men who lead a rough wee life. The dangers they face are played for high stakes and real pain.

First-time feature film director Rupert Sanders worked from a heavily developed script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini. Sanders was charged with delivering a producers’ movie, the chief producer being Joe Roth (Alice in Wonderland). At its best, Snow White and the Huntsman feels less like a desperate blockbuster and more like a handmade object. Anachronistic wisecracks are nowhere to be found. It’s a rather grave adventure, and Stewart isn’t required to carry the movie but simply do her part, affectingly.

Snow White and the Huntsman (PG-13) ★★★☆☆

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