A classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale undergoes an intriguing overhaul in “Snow White & the Huntsman,” a femme-centric, Gothic action thriller strewn with ravens’ feathers and dripping with blood. Disney never put that sweet princess through such muck, but director Rupert Sanders has no qualms about giving Snow White (Kristen Stewart, from the “Twilight” series) the workout of her life in a cold and forbidding forest, branches whipping against her face, her long hair twisting in the wind like a million snakes.
Sanders directed commercials before turning to film, and he certainly knows how to pile on the ambience. His 19th-century Europe (no country name is given) is a bad old place, where the wicked Queen Ravenna (played by a mesmerizing Charlize Theron) deploys an army of spear-brandishing henchmen to murder and pillage and do her bidding while the rest of the world wallows in medieval misery. Nothing like a bit of courtly power to show off a woman’s true colors.
Ravenna is inordinately fond of the cruel and unusual — after seducing Snow White’s dad a mere couple of days after his wife’s death, marrying him at the speed of light and then killing him off without further ado, she settles down to a cozy life of lust, violence and uninterrupted self-love (gazing into that mirror, mirror of hers), using his treasure vault to fund her merry reign of terror. Nice lifestyle, if a queen can afford it. One thing’s for sure, no one had better mention the term “austerity measures” when she’s in the room — they’d be likely to have their eyes gouged out.
In case you’re wondering where the seven dwarves went, they do appear: The diminutive team is played by CGI-enhanced actors such as Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Nick Frost; the dwarves may be short, but there’s nothing cute about their craggy, hungover faces and permanent hygiene-deficiency problems. Not a “heigh-ho” to be heard from their lips. They have what I call the “dungeon effect”: Once they appear, the whole world looks as though it’s been submerged in the drainpipe of a basement bar. Very appropriate, under the circumstances.
Even this A-team of repellent thugs ain’t no match for the hottie Queen Ravenna. She makes no bones about being Bitch No. 1, just as long as she can look good while sinking her talons into the throat of a poor village maiden (Ravenna believes drinking the blood of virgins will keep her young). Or stepping into a tub filled to the brim with fresh milk (she thinks this will keep her skin white and supple).
What a lot of trouble to go through. If only Ravenna were around today, I could lead her to the nearest Takasu Clinic, famed for its state-of-the-art liposuction and Botox shots. Much less mess and fuss at the expense of other people.
But then Ravenna looooves it when other people suffer for her sins. Something to do with a traumatic childhood during which she was taught that outward beauty was all that mattered. The woman has some insecurity issues and on rare occasions even seems a little teary and vulnerable. But whenever the story seems on the verge of holding out a bit of Freudian fun to munch on, Sanders grabs the whole thing up and swings it into yet another in a series of action sequences — of the sort that felt breathtakingly new back when we were gaping at “The Lord of the Rings” but feel a little dated now.
And if you really want to go back in time, check out Ravenna’s trusty mirror, which always lays it on the line and lets her know when she’s being outdone in the beauty stakes. It does this trick of melting and slithering on the castle floor like heated caramel, or something out of “Terminator 2.” Now that’s old, honey.
Forgive me for going on and on about Ravenna; the Wicked Queen has always held so much more appeal than pretty Snow White. To his eternal credit, Sanders’ Snow White bears no resemblance to the passive-aggressive fairy-tale princess who needed a princely kiss to revive her from death. This Snow White bears all the marks of a street tough from Detroit, and the handsome Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent by Ravenna to gore out her insides and bring them back is so impressed by her butt-kicking attitude and well-toned physique (despite her having being locked up in a stone tower by Ravenna for years) that he changes sides to join her and assemble an army of their own.
Cue cat-fight, flanked by sexy dudes in tattered Armani-esque ensembles. So what if the action’s outdated? The sheer, pleasurable sight of Ravenna baring her fangs and storming down the wicked warpath more than compensates. Long live the Queen!