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When it was first known that this year would see the release of two new adaptations of the Snow White fairytale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman I pledged to myself to see both and compare them. Then the trailers for Mirror Mirror started appearing and I thought better of watching that one. Then the reviews for Mirror Mirror arrived and the decision to miss it appeared to be vindicated. Snow White and the Huntsman always looked good and having seen it I can confirm that it is.

But it could definitely be better. This earnest and unironic retelling of the familiar story is gorgeously designed and serves as a surprisingly good example of world-building in film with its reverent handling of classic fantasy tropes. That said it does suffer a few early fumbles straying into tired cliché, the once-upon-a-time voiceover narration, the king who marries the beautiful woman the day after meeting her, the white horse that speeds Snow White away from harm, but after the languid opening act the film settles into a comfortable depiction of good genre archetypes.

Kristin Stewart applies her Twilight experience to the first title role and is well at home with the dialogue while Chris Hemsworth’s grieving drunk of a huntsman draws out a gruff and inexplicably Scottish Thor. Neither find room to really develop their characters beyond the accepted standard but they’re good value all the same. Charlize Theron on the other hand soars as Ravenna, the ethereal beauty who murders the king on their wedding night and seizes his kingdom. The script intelligently explores her obsession with youth and beauty which Theron displays with Terminator-esque stillness in the face and a deep vocal register suggesting far greater age than her amazing looks suggest. And even through her vicious single-minded mania for youth the narrative finds room for sympathy for what is a complex and fascinating character.

The film maintains a surprisingly bleak tone from the start, weaving a very believable world of dirt and grim despair, an approach that becomes tiresome during the languidly slow first half. The tone and the film in general pick up with the introduction of the dwarves played by (deep breath) Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson (that’s eight in total, Disney still own the copyright on seven). The gruffly decent pint-sized bunch exude an earthy charm that lends the film some much needed lightness without sacrificing the carefully constructed atmosphere of gloom, hinting at a vibrant array of characters without really giving them enough screen time to develop them. Props must be given to whatever magic was used to give so many famous faces realistically dwarfish proportions and movement.

Every aspect of design hits a high note from the costumes to the sets and all the special effects in between. CGI wizardry is kept to a sensible minimum, used sparingly to create a handful of fantastical creatures. Some of the visual images are pretty memorable from the first appearance of the phantom mirror-man to the striking sight of Theron bathing in milk that sticks glistening to her entire body. Dark forests are moody and muddy and used well during a trippy hallucination sequence that throws up a number of half-seen horrors. Indeed the world created by the designers straddles authentic believability and dream-like fantasy with tremendous skill. The enchanted forest with its moss covered tortoises, gentle fairies and not at all scary bugs is among the most vivid and appealing fantasy settings seen in a live action genre film in recent years. The only detail working against the film is that it provides nothing remotely original and various moments will remind you of other, ultimately better fantasy features such as The Never Ending Story and Princess Mononoke.

As an action film it’s a bit of a red herring, the epic battle sequences suggested by trailers don’t turn up until the climax and arrive with more of a whimper than a bang, a disappointment given the leisurely nature of the pace but it’s hard to mark the film down too much. So much good work is laid down by the visuals and the overall feel of the fantasy on show. Hollywood has always struggled with the genre and the number of good, completely original efforts can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. You feel with Snow White and the Huntsman that even if they didn’t have a famous story the makers could have created, at worst, a creditable stand alone effort. With the film we have there’s such strong groundwork here that one can’t help but hold a lot of good will for it despite its shortcomings.

Verdict

A little less sombre, a little less languorous, one or two more decent set-pieces and a tighter focus on the characters and Rupert Sanders’ debut might have been something special. Still, it’s very pretty and wears its strengths very well.

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