Handsome but hollow, “Snow White & the Huntsman” is easily among the stranger additions to a roster of rebooted fairy tales that has already seen two versions of this one, “Mirror Mirror” and the ABC series “Once Upon a Time,” awaken in the last nine months. Owing more to “The Lord of the Rings” than anything else, but borrowing freely from a half-dozen sources, Universal faces the formidable challenge of marketing a gritty, muscular and (except for the CGI) old-fashioned, guy-oriented action yarn that’s based on a property closely associated with children and young girls’ fondness for princesses.
That’s not to say the result doesn’t have some satisfying moments, but Universal might have to settle for the somewhat faint praise that its latest summer entry is at least more seaworthy than “Battleship.” And while “Snow White” promoters trumpeted the producer’s ties to “Alice in Wonderland,” Tim Burton’s madcap reimagining is nowhere to be found here.
Instead, working from a script credited to Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, commercial director Rupert Sanders’ maiden film opens with a fairly lengthy and dark prologue, explaining how the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), as much succubus as sorceress, used her feminine wiles and magic to seize the kingdom, kill the king and imprison his beautiful young daughter.
Years pass, and Snow White (now Kristen Stewart) has grown to adulthood in captivity, but seizes an opportunity to escape, Shawshank-style, into the Dark Forest. Since the Queen’s magic won’t work there, she enlists a simple Huntsman (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth), who’s become a bit of a drunkard since losing his wife, to go and fetch the wayward girl.
After that, the movie gives way to a series of episodic battles and escapes, the best of which visually includes a too-brief encounter with a massive troll. Grudgingly, the Huntsman assumes the responsibility of protecting Snow White, who wants to reunite with those loyal to her father, a band that includes a noble boy, William (Sam Claflin), with whom she cavorted as a youth.
Handy with a bow, William is a sterling hero in his own right, once again giving a Stewart character the privilege of being surrounded by two hunky potential suitors. It’s a dynamic that hardly smacks of chance, any more than the sweeping vistas virtually plucked from the “Rings” trilogy; the magic mirror that morphs into an oozing mass seemingly culled from “Terminator 2;” or portentous dialogue in which it is pronounced, “She is the one,” in reverent “Matrix”-like tones, regarding Snow’s ability to end the Queen’s evil reign.
Precious little here really pops, unfortunately, including an only slightly familiar septet of dwarves — played by the likes of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone, with an assist from the visual-effects maestros — who prove extremely handy in a scrape but don’t provide as much comic relief as might have been intended.
The cast does what it can — especially Theron, whose frequent fits add “drama” and “raging” to her regal title — but can’t overcome a degree of flatness to the middle section or lack of consistent excitement at the end. Nor does Hemsworth’s roguish charm come across as effortlessly as it did in “Thor.”
In years past, all this might have made for a perfectly acceptable Saturday matinee — something like “The Magic Sword” comes to mind — but the current requirements of theatrical tentpoles don’t allow for such modestly scaled ambitions.
By that measure, the movie and its villain share a common bond: Conjuring a touch of magic is one thing, but sustaining great helpings of it is something else entirely.