Snow White & the Huntsman has several cool tricks up its ornately designed sleeve, but the coolest one of all is its focus on its wicked queen's existential crisis. That is, after all, what's always driven the action of this oft- and increasingly told tale – the aging queen's savage jealousy of younger beauty is what forces Snow White away from her rightful castle, into the cabin of seven dwarves. It's what almost kills our protagnoist and it's what unites her with her true love, a prince.
As crucial to the fairy tale as it is, this obsession with aging has never been teased out quite as explicitly as in first-time director Rupert Sanders' take on a tale as old as time. At a climactic point, before almost murdering Snow White (Kristen Stewart), Queen Ravenna (ravenously portrayed by Charlize Theron) shrieks, "You are lucky to never know what it is to grow old!" In a vampiric twist that probably feels like home to Twilight's Stewart, Ravenna sucks the life out of the young to cure her chronic aging. She is guided by this stated philosophy: "When a woman stays young and beautiful forever, the world is hers."
And with that, she sums up the Botoxed dreams and nip/tucked wishes of what looks to be the majority of Hollywood's female population. Snow White & the Huntsman is barely veiled allegory for the sexist, ageist Hollywood experience – we're watching a 36-year-old actress drive herself crazy over another who is 22 and thus perceived as more beautiful. Despite being full of hokey declarative dialogue ("You'll be a queen in heaven and sit among the angels!") Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini's screenplay is brilliant in its ability to transform a fairy tale into something socially relevant.
And the execution is so telling, too. Theron acts the shit out of this melodrama. Like Golden Age Hollywood royalty, she smolders from her eyes with such intensity that there's no room for even a slight wink. She throws herself around, writhing and shrieking ("WHERE? IS SHE?") herself way, way over the top, into the stratosphere. That is how high her camp is, and her ability to commit entirely to it makes her the biggest purveyor of the sensibility on the current A-list. (See also Monster. And if you haven't laughed your ass off at it, see it again for the first time.)
Stewart, meanwhile, mostly just grimaces or shrugs when she isn't blank. She sports a dinner-theater British accent, complete with the discernible shame that she would have if she were actually doing dinner theater. She seems terribly uncomfortable in a role that is so dynamic, it does all the enchanting for her. Snow White is given so much to do and react to – she's an orphan, unjustly persecuted, a refugee, a virtual messiah, resurrection and all. Literally, this is how she is described at one point: "She is life itself. She will heal the land. She is the one."
And so, because it's all she has to do, Kristen Stewart merely shows up. She gets away with it because of her marketability, of which her beauty and youth are clear factors. Kristen Stewart the person is everything her fictional adversary Ravenna rages against. Her performance is an inadvertently perfect depiction of youth self-entitlement.
There is no moral to extract from Snow White & the Huntsman. The film may point to the folly of the queen's extreme vanity, but it otherwise revels in extreme vanity itself. It is a flurry of gorgeous costumes (the Queen's bird-wing collar that moves like it's breathing is ingenious), hallucinogenic set pieces (the Queen dips herself into cream as thick as latex), jaw-dropping transitions (beings have a tendency to shatter into birds and/or black glass) and gorgeous creatures, both fantastical (an elk with giant tree-branch antlers, a turtle covered in grass) and human. Chris Hemsworth who plays Eric, the Huntsman, falls in the latter category. A stringy-haired beauty who's willing to commit to the silliest of scripts and pull them off, he's the second coming of Brad Pitt. With this, The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods and the forthcoming Rush and remake of Red Dawn, he is vying with Channing Tatum for movie meat of the year. Welcome to glory, Hemsworth. Please use it wisely.
That said, if you've seen the trailer, you are already familiar with 90 percent of the aesthetic awesomeness of Snow White & the Huntsman, a film that out-Tarsems Tarsem (his terrible Mirror Mirror, released early this year, focused his usually sprawling visual flair on costuming). All this beauty is balanced with fairy-tale appropriate macabre. People are impaled, shot with arrows, terrorized by catapulted flaming fireballs. Ravenna consumes bird hearts and her space is littered with their carcasses – she sometimes wears their skeletons as accessories. This is the hardest PG-13 since The Hunger Games, and it often resembles a junior Game of Thrones.
For as visually fearless as this film is, it does seem as terrified of aging as its antagonist. When Ravenna sucks the youth out of her victims, they look like they've been inflicted with primordial dwarfism. It doesn't scan properly. When she goes awhile without that youth-replenishing breath and begins her natural aging process, the makeup applied to Theron looks like it was done by an apathetic high schooler. It's papier-mâché-esque in texture, clearly fake. It's as though aging Theron seriously would have been too real, too much of a preview of the human body's natural defiance of Hollywood standards.
It goes to show that no matter how lifelike Snow White & the Huntsman is, it is still a fairytale. And when it comes to the careers of those involved, happily ever after is still the ideal.