I'll admit, going into this my expectations were...subdued, at best. While the trailer looked interesting, it also had all the hallmarks of a concept which has had so much "dark and gritty" thrown at it that it's charred black and covered with gravel. Makes for an unpleasant cinematic experience but an even worse culinary one - I speak from experience. The Twilight factor was putting me off Kristin Stewart a bit too, although she was pretty good in The Runaways, so I made the effort to move past that.
Anyway, the end result is actually quite effective, if a little bit too long. It sticks to the basics of the story - evil Queen (Charlize Theron) takes over the land, locks Snow White (Kristen Stewart), the King's daughter, away, she escapes, hooks up with some dwarves (not "hooks up with" - would be a very different movie), and strives to get the kingdom back. Well, queendom. The new addition (at least new to me - may well exist in some versions) is the Huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth with a mostly believable Scottish accent. Recruited against his will by the Queen, he's despatched into the dark forest to find Snow White, but of course rapidly sides with her against their common enemy.
Performances are all good - Kristen Stewart has more to do than as Bella in Twilight (that said so do most of the trees in the dark forest), and her trademark slightly worried look actually fits the character quite well, who's being faced with a lot of pressure she's not entirely equipped to handle. The dwarves also deserve a nod - all portrayed by recognisable full-sized actors (Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and others) but convincingly scaled down. However, Charlize Theron really steals the show - 100% committed to the lunatic ice queen role, chewing the scenery whenever she gets the chance, and looking like she might chew the face off whoever she's talking to the rest of the time.
What was pleasantly surprising was that, without meaning to give too much away, the film steers mostly clear of the obvious romantic subplot, doubly impressive given that Snow's childhood friend, who has of course grown up into a handsome prince, also gets thrown into the mix. Chris Hemsworth's brooding Huntsman, mourning the loss of his wife, is more seeking some form of redemption and rediscovery of honour than pining for the hot young woman he's been thrust into partnership with. And the prince is pretty much just along for the ride and keen to do the right thing by the kingdom than harbouring a childhood crush. It means that while the characters are hardly amazingly nuanced, they at least behave believably given the situation in which they find themselves, rather than desperately trying to force a love story while they're all fighting for their lives.
Last but not least, the visuals deserve special mention. As opposed to Mirror Mirror's slightly more fairytale look, this is a darker and less stylised world, but still clearly with huge amounts of attention paid to it. The Queen's conjured fighters which break into shards are particularly effective, and the fairy forest also conjures just the right atmosphere. The final assault on the Queen's castle also brought a smile to my face, primarily because because of the relatively unusual decision, at least by modern standards, to have a ton of extras on horseback making up the fighting force, rather than having a vast CGI army. While the style certainly outweighs the substance, there's enough interest at its core to carry the movie through the less enthralling moments.
So in conclusion, while it's not a must-see movie, it's still a more effective take on the story than certainly I thought it might be when I first heard the concept. Plot-wise there's nothing especially groundbreaking, but it hits enough of the right notes, with a few deft touches that mark out its own territory without seeming like either a generic remake of something else, or a botched reimagining of a familiar story.
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