For all the money that was spent on Snow White and the Huntsman, apparently there wasn't any allotment in the budget for enjoyment. This movie exists in an universe where any visual wonder can occur but not a single character ever cracks a smile. If you watch event movies lately, you know that there's a certain strain of seriousness that has crept in thanks to the Jason Bourne films and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, which aimed for a more grounded, realistic treatment of larger-than-life characters. But when this approach is done badly, like it is with this movie, you're left with a fantasy world that has almost no magic in it. Geez, folks, making movies can't be this much of a bummer, can it?
Snow White and the Huntsman is actually the second Snow White movie we've had this year, which is probably two too many. Both movies show how Hollywood tends to "reimagine" familiar properties: either by being irreverent (Mirror Mirror) or by taking everything so paralyzingly seriously (Snow White and the Huntsman). In this latest version, Kristen Stewart plays Snow White as the fair princess who's been locked up in the tower by an evil queen (Charlize Theron). Once the queen finds out that the secret to her eternal beauty is taking White's heart, she wants the girl killed. But after White escapes into the forest, the queen hires a huntsman (a charmless Chris Hemsworth) to bring her back. The huntsman soon decides not to capture her but, instead, protect her from the queen's men. Thus ensues an endless amount of chasing, then fighting, then chasing, then fighting. Eventually, some dwarfs show up.
Taking its cue from Twilight, Red Riding Hood and The Lord of the Rings, Snow White and the Huntsman very, very much longs to be a dark fairy tale, the sort where the skies are always charcoal gray and the characters are forever uttering their dialogue with an air of heavy significance. Anyone who grew up with Grimm's Fairy Tales or even The Dark Crystal knows that fantasy realms aren't always filled with sunny delights, but a film like this treats its dour mood as a badge of honor. God help these people, they actually think they're making a meaningful motion picture.
If you had an accomplished filmmaker or a great story, that seriousness can work, adding resonance and gravitas that help enliven a familiar tale. Unfortunately, Snow White and the Huntsman instead has Rupert Sanders, who's making his feature directing debut, although the press notes inform me that he's an "acclaimed commercial director and state-of-the-art visualist." Apparently, he's a state-of-the-art visualist in exactly the same way every other "visionary" filmmaker is. Everything looks sleek and shiny when it doesn't look foreboding and grimy. (And to ensure there's a Star Wars reference in here somewhere, there's even a riff on the showdown between Luke and Darth Vader from The Empire Strikes Back.)
As for the story, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is yet another movie in which a character is informed that she is "the one," which translates in practical terms to mean that she is going to deliver a rousing third-act speech to the troops that proves just how much of "the one" she is. So what you have is a mix of Lord of the Rings and Gladiator and a bit of The Matrix, and in between are vague tweaks of the Snow White story that you remember. (The dwarfs aren't jolly; there's an apple but no old lady in a cloak; and absolutely no way does anybody sing a cheery tune.) None of these revisions in the classic tale help the film—they're done simply so that some poor reviewer can make some stupid proclamation like, "This isn't your father's Snow White!" Yes, it's not—it's not much of anything, frankly.
I'm not opposed to Kristen Stewart just because she's become a superstar after the Twilight films. (First time I saw her was in a small but important role in Into the Wild, and I thought she was quite striking.) But while stripping away Snow White's demure, sweet persona and turning her into a somewhat assertive action hero may please progressively minded folks, it mostly just makes her a deeply boring character. Stewart never sparks to life in the role—you never get to enjoy her Snow White come into her own. She starts glum, and she ends up just slightly less glum. Same goes for Hemsworth. Even if you found his Thor to be terribly dopey, at least the big clod was fun to be around. By comparison, his huntsman is like every stoic loner you've seen in the movies, right down to the hidden soft side underneath. But I can't remember a time when the work of an action hero looked more joyless. I don't care how much devastation the evil queen has wrought upon the kingdom—things can't be this somber.
As with Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman's showy role is that of the villain, and Theron treats the character as if she's the neediest drama queen you'd ever meet. But even she can't bring much vigor to this movie—you feel her wanting to go brazenly over-the-top with her performance, but the film keeps hemming her in. It goes without saying that Snow White and the Huntsman looks great, but after a while I stopped caring about that. Frankly, I stopped caring about anything that was happening in this movie. As hopelessly goofy as Mirror Mirror was, at least it had some spirit to it. Better that than a movie encased in its own solemnity. Snow White and the Huntsman doesn't have an original idea in its head—but in Hollywood, that doesn't matter. Feigning seriousness is good enough.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.