By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The year’s second variation on the story of Snow White is both more grim and more Grimm than its recent predecessor.
On the heels of the fantasy-comedy, Mirror Mirror, comes the glossily handsome Snow White and the Huntsman, similarly based on the Grimm Brothers fairy tale but decidedly different, perhaps even opposite, in tone.
In vivid contrast to the tongue-in-cheek Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman is a dark, solemn action-adventure fantasy, highlighted by extended action sequences and visual storytelling of a very high order.
It’s the Middle Ages in Europe and the bitter Queen Ravenna, played by Charlize Theron, has conquered her share of kingdoms.
Next on her list of conquests: England. Check. Next on her list of strategic moves: marriage to the king. Check. Next on her list of murder victims: her new husband on their wedding night. Checkmate.
She takes over the throne, but, monumentally insecure about her fading beauty, soon realizes that her stepdaughter, Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart, is not only apparently and indisputably the fairest of them all, but is also her inevitable successor.
Turning to her Mirror Mirror on the wall, the queen learns that the only way she can remain in power forever — literally, forever — is to consume Snow White’s heart.
Which the sorceress plans to do, given her ability to suck the youth and beauty out of young women as a way of feeding her own immortality. But her resourceful stepdaughter escapes to the Dark Forest.
So the queen summons the gloomy Eric the Huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth, and makes him an offer he can’t refuse if he will kill Snow White.
However, when Eric, a widower drinking to stave off his grief, meets Snow White, he immediately takes pity on the young princess and, instead of killing her, teaches her how to hold her own in mortal combat.
Then, with the help of Prince William (Sam Claflin), her love since childhood, and eight (yep, eight) English dwarf knights, Snow White embarks on a mission to turn the tables and kill her stepmother.
Debuting British director Rupert Sanders, coming from a career in commercials, works from the straightforward screenplay by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini. Sanders gives the virtual action flick a gothic edge and doesn’t spare the graphic violence, rendering the film inappropriate for the little ones. But what distinguishes the film is its spellbinding visual brilliance.
The CGI flourishes are wondrous and serve the story. And that includes the unique handling of those familiar dwarves, who provide welcome comic relief compliments of skilled character actors (including Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan) who — in a playful, nifty illusion — have been transformed into little people.
With Stewart generating minimal chemistry with either the huntsman or the prince, the romantic-triangle thrust hardly registers. But Theron makes a vivid impression.
As for the dueling-evil-queens competition between Theron and Julia Roberts, let’s call it a yin-and-yang draw between deliciously dark villains, with Roberts offering a comedic take and Theron an equally effective serious one.
True, style here trumps substance by a mile but, given the overwhelming familiarity of the narrative and the array of characters, that probably works in the film’s favor.
So we’ll hunt 3 stars out of 4 for the engrossing, visually striking action fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman. Mirror Mirror on the wall, this Snow White makes you seem small.