Snow White and the Huntsman is a mediocre film, but the trailers sure were grand. Those two-minute advertisements isolated individual moments of visual magnificence and unveiled them one after another whilst mystical and rousing music played, nay, thundered. The final two-hour film is indeed long on visual splendor, courtesy of such masters as cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (Big Fish), and the ever-stalwart James Newton Howard composes a gargantuan, romantic score. But those trailers obscured the fact this is a film plagued by numerous flaws, ranging from an unfocused script (there are three or four credited writers, and the multiple voices and revisions show) to an often slow, almost reluctant pace.
The visual experience, though, should not be underestimated. It is lavish and awe-inspiring. There are wonders to behold throughout, from a dense, gothic, and ever-shifting forest which preys upon travelers' fears to the oasis home of the seven dwarfs, a sunlit psychedelic landscape garden populated by jewel-adorned woodland creatures and fairies. From the Huntsman's masculine utility leather to the evil queen's elegant and macabre gowns, each costume and prop is designed, aged, and utilized to fantastic, yet realistic perfection. Advertising veteran and first-time feature director Rupert Sanders does stumble a bit when it comes time to stage and film battle sequences. Though there is an exciting shot of hundreds of mounted soldiers charging down a beach, the fight sequences in general tend towards editing too rapid-fire for clarity and tight, unconsidered compositions. In general, though, again, Snow White and the Huntsman as a big-screen visual extravaganza is almost without fault.
The performances are fine, too. Chris Hemsworth does not stray too far from the outsize macho gusto of his signature role, Marvel's Thor, though he is able to hit more notes of Han Solo style rebel charisma as the down-to-earth Huntsman. As the malevolent and vain sovereign, Charlize Theron has fun, and it is therefore fun to see her in action. Even the simplest lines ("Out. Out!" said to two soldiers in her chamber) become explosive in this performance, as colorful as it is diabolical. Beyond over-the-top, but it suits the picture and the genre.
And then there is Kristen Stewart as Snow White herself. Several people have been sharpening their knives for months in advance of this performance due to the up-and-coming star's Twilight fame, but there is no need to pounce. She's subtle, but soulful and engaging. Yes, the scene where she encourages the troops on the eve of war lands with a thud, but blame the writing, both for the clichéd nature of the scene in general and the grilled-cheese, dinner-theatre-Game-of-Thrones dialogue. Not even Crowe or Day-Lewis could have sold these lines, let alone the youthful, delicate Stewart. It is also worth noting the host of respected British thespians playing the dwarfs via expert computer-generated reduction, including Toby Jones, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone. None of them have a great deal to do other than a spot of third-act comic relief, but they are still small delights (no pun intended).
Most of the film's flaws stem from problematic storytelling. There are too many characters. Though titled Snow White and the Huntsman, the film forces in another stud and potential suitor, an earnest prince and childhood friend named William, played in a vacant and almost charisma-free performance by Sam Claflin, who, just last year, played a just-as-earnest and just-as-grating role in the fourth Pirates film. (He was the one in love with the mermaid, if you are one of the five people who remember On Stranger Tides' specific plot details.) There are actors typecast as Italian American gangsters. There are actors typecast as Eastern European antagonists. He is typecast as dull-as-dishwater, thinly developed characters who should have been left on the editing room floor. The gorgeous, hypnotic Lily Cole is also on hand as a girl who shares Snow White's tower prison during the first act. She is established, even emphasized for a scene or two, and then slips from the film's mind until a random shot during the last scene.
The pacing feels wrong throughout. There is much chasing, but seldom is there momentum or a sense of the action and the story rushing forth. The queen is under utilized for a significant portion of the film, leaving her castle just once. The actual soldiers pursuing the Huntsman and Snow White are for the most part nonentities. If these characters have names other than Evil Knight #7, Evil Knight #10, etc., one would never know it from the on-screen action. As is often the case with second-tier genre films set in once-upon-a-time lands ruled by evildoers, it is hard to invest in the central cause, despite numerous references to "the land dying" (because, as is common knowledge, agriculture can't survive a poor leader; no celery grew for George W. Bush's entire presidency) and men lost in disastrous military campaigns. A late-third-act switch from Tim Burton set pieces to medieval battle sequences reminiscent of those found in Ridley Scott's flawed Robin Hood feels deflating. Who cares if Snow storms the castle and becomes queen and gives to the poor? Give me more artistic shots of twisted Halloween trees and crows and blood in the snow, damn it!
So, here we have a film with credible performances and often astonishing optical nuances (in glorious 2-D only). It is a shame, then, these elements are not built upon firmer, more inspired ground. With over 150 million dollars on tap for stars and craftsmen and shooting locations, Universal almost paid their way out of a problem they could have fixed with a word processor.