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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The Brothers Grimm first published "Snow White" in 1812, but the story had been around for centuries and would continue to evolve, most prominently with Walt Disney in the 1937 cartoon "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Opening today is the latest and perhaps darkest treatment, "Snow White and the Huntsman," starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The ads for "Snow White and the Huntsman" show a glum Kristen Stewart dressed for battle, obviously playing the Huntsman. Hold the phone, she's Snow White. Another storybook heroine turned warrior. Just like the princess in this year's first Snow White picture, "Mirror Mirror," who not only goes mano-a-mano with her patronizing, patriarchal prince, but tells him she's sick of stories in which damsels take their distress lying down.

No, "Snow White and the Huntsman" is not your father's Snow White, and more to the point, not your Uncle Walt's. It's definitively anti-Disney, bleak and brutal, rife with starving peasants, the tone close to "Game of Thrones," with a stepmother queen played by Charlize Theron who literally sucks the youth out of female prisoners in an attempt to keep wrinkles at bay.

This queen, Ravenna by name and raven-like by nature, seems strongly influenced by feminist commentary on the Brothers Grimm. She declaims that in a world where women are subjugated, she has power only as long as she has beauty - the irony being that the arbiter of beauty is her mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, who's distinctly male. It's no wonder Theron's queen spends half the time carrying on like a diva, and the other half slumped on the hard floor, bemoaning her impotence.

In the Grimm Brothers' story, the huntsman played a small, but key role: unable to kill Snow White at the queen's behest, he bids her flee and brings back innards from an animal. Here, he's played by action star Chris Hemsworth, the Viking stud of "Thor," and he's a grizzled, drunken bad boy in despair over the loss of his wife.

The queen promises to bring his beloved back from the dead if he captures Snow White, setting him up to have a crisis of conscience, hide the princess and find his faith in humanity again. That is, after they exchange cross words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN")

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (as the Huntsman) Who are you? Why does the queen want you dead?

KRISTEN STEWART: (as Snow White) She wants everyone dead, all of us.

HEMSWORTH: (as the Huntsman) What makes you so damned valuable?

STEWART: (as Snow White) You should know. You're the one hunting me.

HEMSWORTH: (as the Huntsman) Ah, forget it. I should have never got involved in the queen's business.

STEWART: (as Snow White) If you return without me, you're dead. If you leave me, I'm dead.

EDELSTEIN: Kristen Stewart's reading sounds wrong, don't you think? If you return without me, you're dead. If you leave me, I'm dead. Shouldn't it be I'm dead? If you return with me - I don't know. The dialogue is all high-flown. Unlike such fractured fairy tales as "Shrek" and "Tangled" and the campy "Mirror Mirror," there isn't an intentional laugh.

There is a handsome prince who, when they were kids, used to frolic with Snow - that's what they call her - but now the two don't have a lot of laughs. She's busy training for combat with her adversaries and to take on the wretched queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN")

CHARLIZE THERON: (as Ravenna) Come and avenge your father, who was too weak to raise his sword.

STEWART: (SCREAMING)

EDELSTEIN: That vengeful cry of attack seems the ultimate negation of Disney's Snow White, who was chirpy and passive and came of age not by fighting, but cooking and cleaning for little people - that is, dwarves standing in for children. The problem here is that unless she keeps house for the dwarves, they have no symbolic function. They're superfluous.

They are a novel bunch, though, eight in number and mean - at least at first. It's a shock when they debate killing Snow and the Huntsman, and a bigger shock when you recognize some of their faces - the heads of Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins superimposed on small bodies.

I found the harshness of "Snow White and the Huntsman" bracing. I only wish it were exhilarating. Director Rupert Sanders is highly regarded in the world of Xbox games. On the bigger screen, his imagery is evocative, but the action is a hash of quick cuts and tacky slow motion.

And can't Kristen Stewart be a little more up? She's a good actress, but in some essential way, closed down. Maybe a song would have helped, something she could sing while practicing her lethal stabbing technique. Wait - I have it!

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK")

ANDRIANA COSELOTTI: (as Snow White) (Singing) Just whistle while you work, and cheerfully together we can tidy up the place. So hum a merry tune. Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm. It won't take long when there's a song to help you set the pace. And as you sweep the room...

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at our website, freshair.npr.org. You can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at npr.freshair.tumblr.com.

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