You don't need a voice in a mirror to tell you which recent Snow White movie is the fairest of them all. Snow White and the Huntsman has Mirror Mirror beat by a mile. Director Rupert Sanders made his bones in commercials and Xbox games, and his debut feature is a visual marvel. Not in the way of the chirpy, witless, postcard-ready Mirror Mirror, in which Lily Collins played an unthreatening Snow and Julia Roberts merely swanned around as the Evil Queen. Sanders' take on the classic fairy tale is as grim as, well, the Brothers Grimm originally intended. It has a darkness that seeps into the soul.
OK, now that I've scared away the children, we can talk. Credit Sanders for assembling an intriguing cast. Kristen Stewart, freed from the bonds of Twilight, morphs convincingly from a skittish girl into a determined warrior princess. Her Snow White knows that Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), her stepmother, murdered her father on their marriage bed and now wants Snow dead so she can eat her heart out. Literally. Otherwise, there's no way the Queen can stay the fairest in the land, since Snow is looking good.
The Queen dispatches the Huntsman (Thor's Chris Hemsworth) to the Dark Forest to find Snow and perform his own brand of thoracic surgery. But the Huntsman, a drunken widower, begins to see Snow's point. Then there's the matter of the seven dwarfs (eight in this version). A bunch of scruffier forest shits you couldn't find anywhere. And they're far from little darlings as played by the formidable likes of Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins, all shrunk down to dwarf size. "Let her rot," they shriek in a manner that hardly befits a toydoll collection.
This is all to the good. What rankles is that Sanders loses his nerve just when the story starts cooking. Stewart looks strong on horseback in armor, and it's satisfying that Snow and the Huntsman never even think of getting it on. This sister is definitely doing it for herself. But Sanders leads her on a conventional route to the film's climax. Also, as a director of actors, Sanders has no flair for modulation. Theron is every inch the imperious Queen, and the way her silence simmers is something to behold. But when the Queen starts ranting like a Real Housewife of Castle Bitch, Theron's power dwindles. Snow White and the Huntsman is definitely a missed opportunity. Sanders was on to something in taking the Snow White tale to its most menacing extreme. Right now, he lacks the skill set to shape and mold what's in his head to screen proportions. But the good news is that Sanders has the potential to do just that. Today's misfire just might turn into tomorrow's masterwork.