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A 'Snow White' As Bleak As It Is Grimm

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The ads for Snow White and the Huntsman show a glum Kristen Stewart dressed for battle, obviously playing the Huntsman. Hold the phone, she's Snow White. Another storybook heroine turned warrior! Just like the princess in this year's first Snow White picture, Mirror Mirror, who not only goes mano a mano with her patronizing, patriarchal prince, but tells him she's sick of stories in which damsels take their distress lying down.

No, Snow White and the Huntsman is not your father's Snow White, and more to the point not your Uncle Walt's. It's definitively anti-Disney, bleak and brutal, rife with starving peasants, the tone close to Game of Thrones, with a stepmother queen played by Charlize Theron who literally sucks the youth out of female prisoners in an attempt to keep wrinkles at bay.

This queen, Ravenna by name and raven-like by nature, seems strongly influenced by feminist commentary on the Brothers Grimm: She declaims that in a world where women are subjugated, she has power only as long as she has beauty — the irony being that the arbiter of beauty is her mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, who's distinctly male. It's no wonder Theron's queen spends half the time carrying on like a diva and the other half slumped on the hard floor bemoaning her impotence.

In the Grimm brothers' story, the Huntsman played a small but key role: Unable to kill Snow White at the queen's behest, he bids her flee and brings back innards from an animal. Here, he's played by action star Chris Hemsworth, the Viking stud of Thor, and he's a grizzled, drunken bad boy in despair over the loss of his wife. The queen promises to bring his beloved back from the dead if he captures Snow White — setting him up to have a crisis of conscience, hide the princess and find his faith in humanity again.

The dialogue is all high-flown. Unlike such fractured fairy tales as Shrek and Tangled and the campy Mirror Mirror, there isn't an intentional laugh. There is a handsome prince who, when they were kids, used to frolic with Snow — that's what they call her — but now the two don't have a lot of laughs. She's busy training for combat with her adversaries — and to take on the wretched queen.

Snow's vengeful cry of attack seems the ultimate negation of Disney's Snow White, who was chirpy and passive and came of age not by fighting but cooking and cleaning for little people — that is, dwarves standing in for children. The problem here is that unless she keeps house for the dwarves, they have no symbolic function; they're superfluous.

They are a novel bunch, though, eight in number and mean, at least at first. It's a shock when they debate killing Snow and the Huntsman, and a bigger shock when you recognize some of their faces — the heads of Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins superimposed on small bodies.

I found the harshness of Snow White and the Huntsman bracing; I only wish it were exhilarating. Director Rupert Sanders is highly regarded — in the world of Xbox games. On the bigger screen, his imagery is evocative, but the action is a hash of quick cuts and tacky slow motion.

And can't Kristen Stewart be a little more up? She's a good actress but in some essential way closed down. Maybe a song would have helped, something she could sing while practicing her lethal stabbing technique. Wait ... I have it! "Whistle While You Work!"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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