Snow White and the Huntsman is a tastefully overbearing franchise fairy tale with a handful of ravishing touches. It's also a world-class illustration of how, in the age of the global blockbuster, the lust for demographics for coralling the largest possible audience can determine aesthetics. The movie works so hard to transform a quintessential girl story into a girl-and-guy story that it's like three movies in one.
The tale of Snow White is, of course (along with Cinderella), the reigning princess fantasy in our culture, an everygirl's dream/nightmare that wallows in an almost rapturous masochism. The relationship between Snow White, the alabster-skinned, ruby-lipped storybook version of cover-girl perfection, and her evil stepmother, who is basically a mean-girl Mommie Dearest, becomes a passion play of beauty, vanity, jealousy, the fear of aging, and the forbidden fruit of growing up. It's an overstuffed jewelry box of feminine obsession.
Snow White and the Huntsman makes room for some of these stirrings within its heavy-handed ''revisionist'' take. The best thing in the movie by far is Charlize Theron's performance as the scheming, snarling Queen Ravenna, who is under an empowering spell that allows her to murder at will, heal her own wounds, and remain eternally youthful in face and body that is, as long as there is no ''fairer blood'' around, in which case the spell will be broken. Ravenna marries, then stabs to death, Snow White's widowed father, King Magnus (Noah Huntley), and imprisons his young daughter in a stone tower. Then, when Snow White matures and blossoms into Kristen Stewart, it's time for her to be killed as well. Instead, she escapes to the Dark Woods.
Theron, knowingly over-the-top, acts in a viciously charged and entertaining style. Wearing a spiky iron crown, along with a black scalloped dress that makes her look like a six-foot-tall human bird as if designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, she plays Ravenna as mad for power, yet there's a timely element of resentment to her viciousness. Ravenna hates living in a world where men can feed on women's beauty and then toss them away. She's a fascist of feminism, and Theron's acting has the blood of operatic anger coursing through it. She updates the mythic ripeness of the material. That's true, in a far more tremulous way, of Kristen Stewart as well, who is just wary and delicate enough of a presence to play ''purity'' without becoming a pain.
But when Snow White lands in the Dark Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman becomes a very different sort of movie. It turns into a clangy medieval epic, full of random woodland monsters and battles, and it begins to lose the pulse of its fairy-tale mystique. It's like watching Clash of the Titans IV: Revenge of the Blood Apple. The queen, through her cringingly devoted brother (Sam Spruell, who wears an ugly pageboy hairdo to great effect), has recruited the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a legendary roving warrior, to find Snow White and bring her back to the castle. But Snow White, brandishing a reward of gold pieces, loses no time enlisting him to be her savior-protector. The Huntsman is played by Chris Hemsworth, the Austrialian actor who so wittily escaped boring hunkdom in Thor and The Avengers, but here, his blond Norse-god tresses have gone drab brown, and his performance is a little colorless too.
It doesn't help that Snow White's romantic inclinations remain oddly vague throughout. Does she want to take a bite out of the Huntsman? Or does she still have a nostalgic crush on William (Sam Claflin), her childhood friend? This amorous tug-of-war is, I guess, supposed to remind us of the Twilight series (talk about letting a franchise tail wag the fairy-tale dog!), but in this case the choice comes to very little. And that's a real miscalculation, since Stewart is so much more convincing as a victim-hearththrob than she is when she's required to put on armor and lead a revolution. By the end, she's supposed to be playing Snow White as Joan of Arc meets Braveheart meets Katniss Everdeen, and she's less than authentic on all fronts. Did I mention that there are dwarves? Eight of them? They're played by name actors who are fun to recognize beneath their fake-looking Munchkin-meets-Hobbit wigs and makeup (Look, it's Ian McShane's burning eyes! And Bob Hoskins' salt-of-the-earth leer!), though if someone had thought to give them a few better lines, maybe that part of the movie, too, wouldn't have fallen short. C+