MARLOES SANDS, WALES — Nearly a hundred soldiers on horseback sprinted across the beach here last fall. Despite many casualties, the charging “Snow White and the Huntsman” army was determined to storm the castle of the evil Queen Ravenna, who not only can suck the beauty out of young women but also transform into a murder of crows.
Assessing the battle from an all-terrain vehicle was Rupert Sanders, a commercial director making his first feature film. No one could accuse him of going timidly into new territory, for this was not just any entry-level first feature but a $175 million ambitious retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.
Expunged of its nursery school wonder and filled with young adult heartthrobs such as Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” and Chris Hemsworth of “Thor,” the film is dressed up with so many elaborate action scenes, fantasy frights and visual effects that it’s more superhero story than classic children’s fable.
“It’s an epic on a grand scale,” Hemsworth said of all the chaos unfolding on the beach.
Sanders’ challenge was to inject the classic “Snow White” story with contemporary relevance without losing the narrative’s familiar center.
“It’s an action-adventure piece set in an epic landscape,” said Charlize Theron, who plays Ravenna.
And while a typical summer blockbuster can take three years to release, Sanders had about half that time to meet Universal Pictures’ June 1 deadline.
Universal’s hiring of Sanders was unconventional but not totally out of the blue. The 41-year-old Brit had been considered for a number of prominent film jobs, including “The Hunger Games.”
As adapted by screenwriters John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), Hossein Amini (“Drive”) and newcomer Evan Daugherty (who wrote the first draft in film school), the “Snow White” story follows the essential contours of the legend. While there’s a poisoned apple and a prince’s magical kiss, the movie makes narrative and thematic departures.
Snow White (Stewart) has been imprisoned by the murderous Queen (Theron), whose thirst for eternal life and beauty has made her far more vampiric than regal. When Snow White escapes, the Queen recruits the drunken Huntsman (Hemsworth) to retrieve her stepdaughter.
Snow White runs into the forest and finds the woodlands enchanting and foreboding. There are merry dwarfs (played in part by full-sized actors Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost) and a frightful, computer-generated troll. But it is Sanders’ use of visual effects that distinguishes “Snow White” from this spring’s “Mirror Mirror,” a much tamer version of the same fable from Relativity Media that fizzled.
In “Snow White and the Huntsman,” the Queen ages years in seconds, plants wither and bloom instantly, the magic mirror melts into a golden anthropomorphic blob, and shards of a ceiling form indomitable warriors.
Such cinematic sleight-of-hand has become a requisite component of summer movies as studios pitch their productions to an audience that demands eye-popping action. If the film is to justify its massive cost, it must fend off the male-oriented “Men in Black 3” and “Prometheus,” which open the weekends before and after “Snow White.” And it must attract moviegoers male and female, young and old.
For all of the film’s action and computer tricks, Sanders and his cast are hopeful that audiences are moved by the film’s heart and its take on female empowerment. “I set out to make an emotional blockbuster,” Sanders said. “So many blockbusters are fun to look at, but you leave feeling that your soul hasn’t been nourished.”