'Snow White And The Huntsman' Review: Sorcery And Sexual Power In A Faerie Forest

Snow White and the Huntsman leaves the most interesting character out of the title: Ravenna, the so-called evil queen who wants Snow White's heart on a platter. In this telling, the queen is a black widow whose appetite for power is driven by a consuming fury towards all men. Charlize Theron plays Ravenna not with subtlety — nothing in this would-be blockbuster is subtle, from the insistent effects to the poop jokes — but at least a sense that Ravenna nurses a great wound in her soul.

No other character is as captivating. Ravenna is a strange, wild jewel, flawed and brilliant. She's more than just a cookie-cutter villain, and begs to be the center of the film. If Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent can get her own movie, why can't Ravenna?

Huntsman doesn't seem to know what it has, however. It wants to be a fairy tale revision, an action movie, a franchise opener. Even if the movie truly was hers, the monster can't always be the center of attention; leave the camera on the shark in Jaws and you've merely got a documentary. But the film's approach to retelling the story of Snow White, and of the Huntsman who saves her and the Prince who loves her, is so fractured that all the queen's dark power is wasted.

Once, Ravenna connived her way into the bedchamber of a good king, not because he wronged her, but because she could. She killed the king, imprisoned his daughter, and took over. The daughter, of course, is Snow White, played as a bland ingenue by Kristen Stewart. Why is Snow imprisoned rather than killed? Good question; Ravenna certainly shows little mercy to anyone else. Regardless, it's something that could be answered with a single line of dialogue — "I need her to ripen," or some such thing — but isn't.

Thanks to the stirring sexual urge of Ravenna's all-but-eunuch brother, Snow escapes to the nearby Dark Forest. An unnamed huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), drunk and dissolute but a fine tracker, is recruited to find Snow. The impetus isn't merely the girl's royal status, but that she could be the one who might undo Ravenna's power for good. There's a lot more plot, involving the Prince (Sam Claflin) who's pretty psyched to find that Snow is still alive, and a band of dwarfs (Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, and more), one of whom is convinced she's some kind of messiah.

That's where things get weird. The good princess and evil queen make quite a pair: Snow is the virgin, the animal whisperer, the one who doesn't have to fight by conventional means. Faced with a troll, she just stands him down. Ravenna's power is based in superficiality and subterfuge — she's a gorgeous woman for whom the only power was ever beauty — and all she can do is deceive. Huntsman establishes the conflict as something that is more than just a grab for the throne, with powerfully charged ideas about sex and power at the relationship between them.

But the script feels like a hodgepodge of drafts crammed together, and the conflict outlined above is only one of many fighting for space. There's a dip into a fairy sanctuary (which doesn't end up seeming much like a sanctuary at all), some stuff about a prophecy, complete with lumpen dialogue for the dwarfs, and finally the overwhelming urge to turn the film into a Lord of the Rings-style bottle movie. And don't forget the love story! In earlier drafts, the Huntsman was an older character, a mentor, but with Chris Hemsworth cast the role was rewritten younger. Now there is an ambiguous romantic triangle, with no hope of resolution. (That is evidently for the sequel.)

The film does feature an intriguing approach to magic, fantasy, and faerie, in that it suggests at times that none of those things truly exist. Some of the horrors of the Dark Forest are botanically-induced hallucination, and there is a point where we suspect that Ravenna is not actually possessed of real magic. But magic does exist, faeries are real (they ride squirrels!) and the queen does command her own dark force. Suggestions of ambiguity are whispered, then ignored.

With all that stuff going on, no wonder other things get dropped, like Snow White's connection to nature as she turns into a warrior, or most of the character of the Huntsman, who is just a good-looking, capable fighter haunted by his past. Fairly stock stuff for fairy tales. There's even a point where Ravenna, who is like an engine that runs on misandry, has to impersonate a man as a means to an end. You'd think that would be a pretty powerful moment, but it's just another idea lost in the woods.

Director Rupert Sanders indulges himself with some shots cribbed from Terrence Malick, and lots of other good-looking stuff, but most of it doesn't add up. One sequence, a 'boat and river village' scene that called to mind Apocalypse Now, does come to bear on both the plot and the ideas about the relationship between power and sex (and gender), and it's one of the better, weirder parts of the film.

And still, there is Rovenna. She gets the best costumes (by Colleen Atowood), some of the best effects, and the best scenery to chew. Theron occasionally screeches through scenes like a raging Courtney Love, jealous and frustrated and nearly impotent despite all her power. She should be the heart of the film, but and as with everything else in her life, she's misused, even abused, and cast away. Can't someone bring her this movie's heart on a platter?

/Film score: 5 out of 10