In this day and age it is unusual, to say the least, for a filmmaker not to allow the protagonist in a movie to speak, but that’s the case with first-time director Rupert Sanders’ “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Kristen Stewart plays the beloved fairy tale princess, but barely says a word. Almost everything you learn about the character, which admittedly isn’t much, other people tell you. You constantly hear about how good and pure and innocent she is, but you never see her embody these qualities. The same goes for her beauty. That dead horse is beaten into the ground, but you’re never allowed to sit back, gather information, and decide for yourself.
You know the basics of the Snow White legend, and the movie never strays too far from that. There are a few detours, but nothing major. An evil queen, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), is obsessed with beauty and remaining forever young. She usurps the throne from Snow White’s (Stewart) father, imprisons the young girl, and dark times fall over the kingdom. Snow White’s beauty—they throw that word around so much it loses all meaning—is the only direct competition to Ravenna’s own. When the prisoner escapes, the queen hires a grizzled booze hound, The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), to go into the Dark Forest, catch the fugitive, and return her to Ravenna so she can eat the young girl’s still beating heart and become immortal.
Storytelling in “SWATH” is the biggest weakness, and the movie is just one scene after another that never builds to anything. “SWATH” does have some exciting visuals. The Dark Forest feeds on the fears of those travelling through the accursed woods, causing hallucinations, bad trips where branches come alive and turn into snakes, specters erupt out of trees, and sinister birds screech overhead. Even the bridge troll, who looks like an animated lump of driftwood, is impressive.
But there is absolutely nothing to back that up. There is little to no characterization that doesn’t come via voiceover. It goes back to that old writing adage: show don’t tell. Let your characters be themselves and act according to their personalities, and allow your audience to draw their own conclusions. To dump all that exposition up front is lazy writing—like when Snow White finds a random white horse just chilling on the beach at an opportune moment when she could really use a horse—not to mention horribly unsatisfying as a viewer.
Back to the acting for a moment. Sanders doesn’t let Stewart say much. She has one big rally-the-troops moment, but that’s it. How much giving her more lines would have helped is a debatable point, as when she does speak it is always just a mumbled sentence or two. Honestly she seems bored with the whole thing. What might have helped the movie would be to have Theron spend less time talking, or at least screaming. Her performance is so overwrought you can’t help but laugh every time she opens her mouth. Most of her dialogue is delivered in shrieks, with veins popping, her face burning red, and her eyes welling up with tears. There is no subtlety whatsoever, and that includes the acting. It’s like a lead fist pummeling you upside the head.
The most disappointing part is that you can see how “SWATH” could have been a cool, spooky take on the Snow White mythos. The ambiance is there. The grim, impoverished kingdom is rendered well. They could have used the Dark Forest to great effect, but that part of the story is glossed over and you never feel like the characters are in real danger. There’s no tension. Watching Ravenna emerge from a pile of bird corpses is gross and stunning at the same time. That character in particular could have been something memorable. Or at least memorable for the right reasons.
Ravenna has a lifelong obsession with beauty and appearances, but at the same time she is on a quest for revenge against every man who has ever wronged her by only paying attention to the exterior. That theme is touched on with a few early lines then abandoned completely in favor of yelling and hanging out with her weird albino brother. If they had taken the time to develop Ravenna, to let her ooze a quiet menace instead of a white-hot roid rage, she could have been a great creepy, wounded villain.
Squandered potential is the overarching problem with “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and it is full of could-haves. This could have been a unique spin on a classic, full of visual stunts that enhance the story. Unfortunately that’s not the case. By far the best part of the film is the dwarves. It’s an all-star cast that includes Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson. They’re only in the last third of the film, but they are by far the most earnest, engaging, well-rounded characters of the bunch. When they interact you feel their connection and honesty, the exact opposite of everything else in this movie.