You have to do much more when directing a 130-minute film than you do when crafting a 60-second commercial. Snow White and the Huntsman, from first-time director Rupert Sanders, is a prime example of not doing enough to fill the time you've been given.
The movie stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White, a young princess who is imprisoned in a castle tower by her wicked new stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron) after her real mom dies and her father, the king, is murdered by his new bride on their wedding night. It turns out that Ravenna has been blessed with eternal beauty and youth as long as she can suck the life force out of pretty young girls. A few years later, when Ravenna's magic mirror informs her that Snow White has come of age and is now the fairest in the land, the jealous evil queen demands the young woman be brought before her. However, Snow manages to get away from the guards and escapes into the Dark Forest -- a place filled with quicksand-like black muck and lots of leafless tree branches. The queen wants her found, since only Snow White can remove Ravenna's powers, and she hires a drunken but skilled huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), still in mourning for his recently deceased wife, to bring the runaway prisoner back to the castle.
Of course, he finds her fairly quickly, but when the huntsman rightly figures out that the queen plans to kill this young woman, he refuses to turn her over to the authorities. The two slowly build up a level of trust, meet up with a gang of tough dwarves, rally the remaining citizens loyal to the old king, and attempt to take back their kingdom.
Director Sanders has been responsible for some eye-catching, award-winning commercials, but the skills required in that particular medium do not translate perfectly to the big screen. Sure, there are some filmmakers whose talents flourish in both formats, but in this retelling of Snow White, Sanders shows no feel for pacing -- this is one dull movie, full of dead air between lines of dialogue -- and no real ability to help shape actors' performances. Aside from a pretty great opening scene in which Ravenna reveals her murderous intentions, Charlize Theron is forced to yell constantly. It's an occasionally laughably bad performance, because she maxes out the character's anger so early on that she's forced to spend the rest of the movie getting more and more worked up in her every scene until she's practically in Mommie Dearest territory within the first 30 minutes. She's not the only one who suffers -- Kristen Stewart can't quite shed shades of Bella Swan here, and she spends much of the movie moping. She underplays as much as Theron overplays.
There's no denying that Sanders has a sense of style. The movie does look great, no matter what he's filming; the queen's cavernous castle is as filled with dread as the ominous Black Forest, but the script (which is credited to three different screenwriters) is so plodding -- and the tempo of the film so sluggish -- that we can only note the craft instead of appreciating it.
Various aspects nag at you throughout the picture. The dwarves are played by some very talented men -- Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, and Ray Winstone -- whose faces have been digitally superimposed on the bodies of smaller actors. These scenes have a consistently disconcerting quality (it's impossible to forget that you're watching a special effect because these well-known actors aren't really dwarves) even while the performances themselves are rock solid. Also, during the opening scenes when Snow is locked inside the tower, she quietly recites the Lord's Prayer. It's intriguing to ponder how Christianity could exist among fairies, shape-shifting trolls, and evil forces that can suck the life force out of another human, but such religious and philosophical musings have been scrubbed free from this story, leaving you with a nagging feeling that this intimate moment of prayer exists for no other reason than to appeal to a Christian audience without any real interest in what it might mean for the characters.
In spite of the picture's failings, Sanders is obviously not without talent. Here's hoping he can follow the example of, say, David Fincher, an uncommonly gifted master of commercials and music videos, who learned a lot from his first feature -- the troubled Alien 3 -- and went on to become one of the best directors of his generation.