How many makeovers does one girl need? Snow White, who has already been the subject of a lavish off-the-wall comedy (“Mirror Mirror,” with Julia Roberts and Lily Collins) a few months back, now becomes a sword-swinging, dagger-wielding Joan of Arc in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which attempts to turn the simple story of youth-must-be-served-a-poisoned-apple into “Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Braveheart.’” All that’s missing is the blue face paint — and the excitement, since writer Evan Daughtery’s misguided rewrite of “Snow” moves at an almost glacial pace.
Primarily designed as a vehicle for “Twilight” idol Kristen Stewart (who actually — stop the presses! — cracks a couple of furtive smiles in this one), “Snow” drifts away from its Brothers Grimm roots to incorporate such family-unfriendly ingredients as multiple murders, torture sequences, near-rapes, alcoholism, impalements, mushroom-induced hallucinations, burning villages, ax fights and hints of an incestuous relationship between mad Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her excessively devoted brother, Finn (Sam Spruell).
Hey, Walt Disney: Why didn’t you think up this stuff 75 years ago?
A narrator informs us that the fresh-faced, pre-pubescent Princess Snow was “adored throughout the kingdom as much for her defiant spirit as for her beauty,” although when the little girl grows up to be the stylishly sullen Stewart the kingdom wouldn’t seem to have much to celebrate. In Stewart’s reading, “defiant spirit” registers as shoulder-tossing impatience, as if her BFF has taken too long to return her text message; as for beauty, Stewart’s competition is the statuesque Theron, so she’d better hope her judges are hardcore Team Bella supporters.
Even though Theron, like all of her co-stars, is locked into a one-note role, her Ravenna still seems like she’d be more fun to hang out with than Snow. At least Ravenna, a skilled practitioner of black magic, knows the definition of “defiant spirit”: She engineers an overnight ascent to the throne by bewitching Snow’s widowed father, King Magnus, shortly before performing an inspired tribute to “Basic Instinct” on her wedding night. “Men use women,” she snarls as her new husband attempts to make love to her. “They use us, and when they are finished with us they toss us to the dogs, like scraps!” Ravenna ends her lecture by plunging a dagger into Magnus’ chest, a move that’s always guaranteed to be a showstopper in one sense or another.
Ravenna’s obsession with retaining her youthful appearance drives her to consult her Magic Mirror, which resembles an enormous golden gong and houses a shrouded spirit that suggests Ravenna could hold on to her looks eternally by munching on the still-beating heart of the captive Snow White. Snow is understandably resistant to the idea of becoming a witch’s Sunday brunch, however, and flees into a dark forest (cleverly designated The Dark Forest by those who know it) where she only has to contend with giant bats, vicious birds, quicksand, poisonous spores and overactive trees that grab and grope like 16-year-olds on a first date at the drive-in.
A desperate Ravenna dispatches a down-on-his-luck Huntsman (the usually lively Chris Hemsworth, more or less smothered by a colorless character and a booming brogue) to find Snow, but he apparently puts youth before beauty. Snow reminds him of his late wife, and, beneath his gruff exterior, the Huntsman is a sentimental softie. After much dawdling around and a few pointless, plot-padding misadventures, Snow and the Huntsman finally meet the Seven Dwarfs, who behave more like the Seven Samurai in this case and, although they sing and dance, “Heigh-Ho” is missing from their repertoire. Among the Dwarfs, you’ll notice Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones, all made diminutive through digital witchcraft.
The good guys retreat to Sanctuary, a pastoral paradise that bears a startling resemblance to a vintage Yes album cover, with its fairy-dusted breezes, cavorting sprites and toadstools with cyclopean eyes. Snow encounters an ivory-colored stag with a magical aura, prompting a dwarf to exclaim, “No one’s ever seen this before!” Guess the last few Harry Potter movies didn’t play the Sanctuary Cineplex.
As “Snow” loses whatever storytelling momentum it had, director Rupert Sanders tries to hold viewer attention with supposedly stunning sights, such as Ravenna dissolving into a flock of screaming crows or descending (crown and all) into what seems to be a wading pool filled with murky milk. If you never tuned in to MTV in the 1990s, this may be revelatory; if you remember videos like Madonna’s “Frozen” and Neneh Cherry’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it seems considerably less original. Either way, a few flashy sights don’t energize this lumbering, tiresome yarn or make up for Stewart’s blas, irritatingly understated performance.
While no one can hold up “Mirror Mirror” as any sort of masterpiece, it approached the material with a sense of playfulness and a bit of comedic zest. Full of scowling, howling and growling, “Snow White and the Huntsman” takes itself so seriously that it sometimes threatens to become unintentionally laughable. “Whistle While You Work” has no place here — it’s all bristle-while-you-work instead.