With a mythology assembled from parts some Brothers Grimm here, a little Joan of Arc there "Snow White and the Huntsman" offers a dark, muscular take on the classic fairy tale.
As with all fairy tales, though, the real star of the show isn't the damsel or the heroic savior. It's the villain. And in the imperious gaze and formidable body of Charlize Theron, this "Snow White" has a wicked queen worthy of the title.
Director Rupert Sanders, a veteran of TV commercials now making his feature debut, starts with the queen, Ravenna, as she seduces the kindly widowed King Magnus (Noah Huntley), kills him and takes over the kingdom with the help of her evil brother Finn (Sam Spruell). The only loose end is the king's daughter, the good and kind Snow White whom Ravenna locks up in the castle's tallest tower.
When Snow becomes of age (and is played by Kristen Stewart), Ravenna learns from her magic mirror that Snow is now "fairest of them all." Because of her fairest blood, she is both the only person who can destroy the queen and the only one who can give her immortality.
Before the queen can cut out the princess's heart, Snow escapes to the Dark Forest where the hallucinogenic plant life makes everyone see demons at every turn. The queen hires a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, Thor from "The Avengers"), a drunken brooder nursing the pain of his wife's death, to retrieve Snow. Along the way, though, the huntsman has a change of heart and winds up helping Snow.
Snow is a tricky character in this telling both innocent and fearsome, a sheltered princess who learns to be a tough warrior. Stewart pulls it off, showing more range and expression than were ever required by the weak-kneed Bella Swan in four "Twilight" movies (a character more in the damsel-in-distress tradition of Disney's Snow White). Hemsworth's role is less of a challenge, yet he adds a touch of the rogue to the trademark Thor swagger.
The tag-teamed script credited to newcomer Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") and Hossein Amini ("Drive") delivers the grimness of the Brothers Grimm, but also cherry-picks from a slew of other influences, including Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling.
Sanders manages to squeeze out some visually stunning sequences, from the opening battles (where knights shatter like dark crystals) to the queen's milk-bath beauty regimen. The coolest effects come not just from the computer wizards who, among other things, turn Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins into authentic-looking dwarves but from the arresting regal costumes designed by Oscar winner Colleen Atwood ("Chicago," "Alice in Wonderland").
It helps that those costumes drape the fashion-model frame of Theron, who is magnificent. Theron brings an imperious grandeur to Ravenna's wicked plotting, as well as a trace of sympathy for the hard-knock life that turned her heart so cold.
Whether this queen gets Snow White's heart is for you to discover. What's for sure is that Theron will steal yours.
'Snow White and the Huntsman'
The pairing of Kristen "Bella" Stewart and Chris "Thor" Hemsworth is fine, but Charlize Theron's evil Queen reigns in this dark fairy tale.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, June 1.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality.
Running time • 127 minutes.