The hunger for fairy tales never wanes, but appetites refine. Snow White and the Huntsman - ambitious, brutish, ruthlessly unromantic - has the right idea casting its heroine as a Joan of Arc-type crusader. Its evil queen is a dissertation, albeit first draft, on beauty as the most direct path to power for the disenfranchised female.
A quick preamble establishes what we already know from Uncle Walt's work: Snow White, pure of heart and boundless in beauty, loses her mother to sickness, then her father to a usurper to the crown. The conniver is Ravenna (Charlize Theron, suitably ravenous), who commands a dark army.
Contrary to most dramatizations of Snow White's foil, Ravenna has a backstory that plays to modern-day cravings for psychologically rich villainy. She sucks the lifeblood from luminous youths and dips in restorative baths (one of many stunning visuals from first-time director Rupert Sanders), but she's chafing from early wounds, and her survival is bound to black magic.
On the advice of her mirror, ever forthright when it comes to survival of the prettiest, Ravenna wants Snow White's heart on a dinner platter, especially when the princess comes of age as comely Kristen Stewart. But the queen is thwarted when Snow White shows a proto-warrior's cunning and flees the castle.
All this, it must be said, is a little drear, but when the titular huntsman arrives on the scene, the film approximates an asthmatic's lunging gulp at pure oxygen. Chris Hemsworth, already adept with a massive hammer as Thor, wields a mighty ax here as a drunk and grieving townie bullied into hunting Snow White. In an about face, he protects her through the Dark Forest, which traffics in a terror rarely realized so viscerally in a PG-13 entertainment. Soon enough there are dwarves to contend with. They ferry Snow White and the huntsman into a land called Sanctuary, which is teeming with mossy delights and faeries that complicate the Christianity introduced earlier.
So what are we to make of a white stag wafting holiness? Is it of Celtic or Roman Catholic origin? The film's forceful spirituality is one of several avenues introduced but not satisfactorily explored, even as the action consistently thrills. With material rich enough for a miniseries but lamentably shoehorned into summer blockbuster fare, Snow White and the Huntsman, at its best, finds the sweet spot between folklore's elemental urges and the hard-fought, pragmatic women-centrism of contemporary cinematic heroism.
In short: There's no kiss from a savior-prince forthcoming, and bully that. But is it anti-feminist to worry that we're left a little wanting?