Review: Charlize Theron elevates stunning ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’

We’re up to our necks in Snow Whites these days, what with Once Upon a Time on ABC , NBC’s Grim returning this fall and March’s Mirror Mirror still in some theaters.

So what does Twilight’s Kristin Stewart add to the mix?

A lot, as it turns out.

By embracing fairy tales’ medieval roots as well as their escapist fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman became a movie that visually delights even as it wallops with an armored fist.

It’s Snow White meets Braveheart, with a little Joan of Arc thrown in.

Stewart is the titular character, the daughter of the former king enslaved by her patently evil stepmother (Charlize Theron). When she makes her escape, the queen sends a drunken huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down.

In her imprisonment, Snow White is no Disney princess, hair flowing as she sings with birds outside her window. The dank, dark stone cell offers no comfort as an unwashed, rag clad princess attempts to light a fire with a flint and a few bits of straw. When we see Stewart’s unwashed, greasy hair and dirt caked on her face, we know this is a gritty, brutal world.

Yet, it’s a magical world as well, where the birds help the princess and horses await her beck and call, a place where the pure of heart might, if they’re lucky, catch a glimpse of fairyland.

And what a fairyland it is, all dappled sunlight and nature in harmony with itself.

It’s the juxtaposition of medieval scrabbling for survival and sublime fantasy that makes the whole thing fresh and new. The people living in the mud and hunger surely needed a world of delight behind the next tree or around the riverbend. They knew there must be fairies, even as there must be a heaven, because there had to be something more than the disease and brutality they faced.

Stewart’s princess is very pure of heart, her ruby lips shining under her layer of dirt. She wants her freedom, yes, but she also wants to lead her father’s former subjects against their cruel queen. Her actions are invariably selfless, her cause just. In one scene, she even recites the Lord’s Prayer – the entire thing! – as she bides her time in prison.

It’s all in contrast to the pure, selfish evil of the queen. With her magical powers closely tied to her youth and beauty, the queen becomes a Joan Rivers of sorts, despairing at each wrinkle and frantic to restore youth. She escews botox, however, for literally sucking the vitality and beauty from young girls.

So much more efficient.

But beauty is not an end in itself, or a good in itself, but a tool to use against people in general and men in particular, who she sees as victims to conquer and not partners to embrace. What she does embrace is dark magic, the kind that fills terrifying forests and requires beating hearts to eat.

Charlize Theron becomes the real star of the show with her fantastic, single-minded performance. Her costumes are almost a character in themselves, so well do they reflect the heart within: cloyingly innocent as she lures the king into marriage, all sharp edges and death after she cements her queenship.

Her makeup, too, is fantastic. She leaps from 25 to 40, back to 25, and up to 70. In the same vein, but a bit more subtle than Julia Roberts in Mirror Mirror, Theron’s entire performance becomes a critique on the frenetic quest to remain young.

Beauty, it says, is much more than skin deep.

Stewart’s performance is more run of the mill. She plays her princess as she does all her characters, with trembling insecurity cloaking iron will. No one can emote the consuming emotion of a girl in her first kiss like Stewart and when the romance comes, Twilight fans will sigh through their braces in delight.

The film is not perfect. Some early references to magic are jarring and create laughter, and not the good kind. Later, as Snow White rallies her father’s former subjects against the queen, the film morphs into a medieval battle sequence with thundering chargers and the clang of sword on armor.  It’s exciting in a purely PG-13 sort of way. Arrows knock riders off horses, but don’t make them bubble with blood. The ending feels a bit tacked on, however, after the beauty that came before. It tries to be Lord of the Rings, but we already have a Lord of the Rings.

What we don’t have is fairy tales that embrace their source material and culture of origin so thoroughly  and so well. Until now.

Snow White and the Huntsman is rated PG-13 for action and violence. There is only a brief light scene of implied sensuality (in the context of unwanted advances) and no bad language. A scene in which Snow White is lost in a dark and haunted forest will be too spooky for younger viewers.

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