Once upon a time, in a strange and mysterious place called Hollywood, a group of energetic producers became fascinated with children's fairy tales. They huffed and puffed and blew up the millions of dollars in cash needed to turn these children's stories into epic action events.
The latest grim look at a Grimm story is "Snow White and the Huntsman," featuring the ever-dour Kristen Stewart and the charismatic Chris Hemsworth. Just like in the fairy tale of yore, it's the Wicked Queen -- played with psychotic passion by Charlize Theron -- who steals the show.
Director Rupert Sanders loads this very dark version with all the traditional elements: a talking mirror that strokes egos like a Hollywood agent; a group of vertically challenged heroes; the powerful effects of a true love's kiss; and the battle between the Wicked Queen and Snow White. One big change is that the Huntsman, who in the original tale faked Snow White's death, turns into her full-time protector.
In another twist, the script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini includes dark elements of religion, sadomasochism, narcissism and oppression to give the film a tone that's too mature for youngsters.
It starts with Theron's commanding performance. Her Queen is not just power-hungry, but driven by a deep hatred for all men. It's not just enough to seduce her way to power, but she has to do it by emasculating any male who gets in her way.
Theron's acting abandon is what gives the movie its best moments. The nature of the role allows her to be as psychotic as she wants, and Theron plays it to the max. The movie loses half its energy when she's not on screen.
Hemsworth is engaging as the cocky Huntsman who stumbles through life with a broken heart. His reasons for hunting down Snow White are misguided at first, but he learns the error of his way.
The weak link is Stewart's Snow White. The character is defined as having the purest and most compassionate heart in all the land. Even when blessed by the white stag of Nature, Stewart plays Snow White as distant and cold. In scenes where she's decked out like Joan of Arc and riding her steed toward the castle walls, Stewart seems more annoyed by the spray from the horse's hooves than determined to save the kingdom.
There's no such weakness in the special effects department. There's a unique take on the talking mirror. A masterful visual illusion makes full-size actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost and Ray Winstone look likes dwarves. Even the Queen's dark magic -- which at times looks like an indictment of big oil companies -- resonates with a sharp originality.
Sanders makes a mistake common to many first-time directors. He seems so in love with his work that he's blind to the need for some major edits. There are scenes with a group of woman living in a village without men and of dwarves singing around a campfire that should have been cut. Both do nothing but slow the pace.
The first-rate special effects and Theron's villainous performance are the driving forces. The simple fact the story has such a wicked edge makes this version of Snow White far superior to the recent "Mirror Mirror." But in terms of writing, the TV version of the fairy tale portrayed in "Once Upon a Time" was better. This big screen version falls somewhere between those offerings.
Those other two takes on Snow White are also more child-friendly. Parents need to be aware that while this film's based on a fairy tale, it's in no way intended for young viewers.
"Snow White and the Huntsman" has enough small flaws to keep it from being the fairest version of the Snow White tale in all the land. But if Theron's performance and the great visuals are enough, you'll live happily ever after with your decision to see the movie.
"Snow White and the Huntsman," rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity. Stars Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Running time: 127 minutes. Grade: B- Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org
or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.