First-time feature director Rupert Sanders finds himself at the helm of this ambitious, straight-faced adaptation of the Brothers’ Grimm fairy-tale, with Kristen Stewart cast as the “fairest of them all”, opposite Chris Hemsworth as the nameless Huntsman and Charlize Theron as the evil stepmother, Queen Ravenna. Sanders brings a surprising confidence to the production and is fully prepared to embrace the story’s more fantastical elements head on, including the Magic Mirror, Seven Dwarfs and magical Dark Forest. Indeed when the film sticks true to the story we all know and love (most likely thanks to Walt Disney’s 1937 animated version), there is plenty to enjoy in this bold production. However, screenwriters Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini seem determined to change-up the story whenever possible, almost always to the detriment of the final product.

Most notable among the changes is that Hemsworth’s character, originally charged with killing Snow White only to mercifully let her go, is now a full-blown romantic lead and protector of our heroine for much of the film. Seeing the opportunity to expand the story into a barnstorming epic, the writers have also beefed up the political/military angle of the Queen’s rise to power. After all, Snow White is the rightful heir to the kingdom so it makes perfect sense that she would have powerful allies willing to help her retake her throne. That said, the levels to which the action is escalated here might feel more at home in a Peter Jackson or Ridley Scott film than a fairytale.

Despite the film’s numerous flaws, there is no denying Sanders’ vision. SNOW WHITE almost always looks spectacular, and the sequences in the Dark Forest – both when Snow White succumbs to the hypnotic powers of the undergrowth, and when the dwarfs take her into their magical sanctuary, which teems with cuddly mammals, sprites and foliage transplanted from Pandora – the film is pitched perfectly. The dwarfs themselves are also fantastically realised by a roster of stellar British character actors that includes Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins. While there may be a valid discussion as to why actors of real diminutive stature were not cast, there is no reason to detract from the excellent performances or the brilliant effects work to shrink the actors down to size. There may be more than a passing whiff of Terry Gilliam’s TIME BANDITS in the dwarfs’ appearance and general group dynamic, but the sad truth is that they are criminally underused, only appearing halfway through the story and being side-lined almost completely during the final pivotal battle.

Charlize Theron ramps her performance up to eleven as the unflinchingly merciless and power-hungry Queen Ravenna, who feeds off the souls of young virgins and manipulates every man she encounters. Had the film been retooled as Evil Queen vs. the Seven Dwarfs, audiences would have been in for a real treat. As it is, we relish the moments when these characters are on screen, but are forced to endure one of the worst central female performances in recent memory, as Kristen Stewart proceeds to suck the life out of the movie instead of providing its heart and soul. While I’ve never been much of a fan of Stewart, I have defended the TWILIGHT series in the past and actually commended her work in both THE RUNAWAYS and Udayan Prasad’s remake of THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF. However, here she fails at the most fundamental levels – well beyond the fact that she can’t hold a candle to the radiant Theron in the battle to be “fairest of them all”. Not only does Stewart display the emotional range of a hatstand, but frequently her line readings are way off, as if she simply doesn’t understand what it is she’s being paid to say.

The script demands Stewart be grief-stricken and vengeful, but also a strong leader who inspires a nation into overthrowing its monarch. On top of that, Snow White must juggle the romantic advances of Hemsworth’s Huntsman – whom he plays much the same as Thor, albeit with facial hair and a wavering Scottish/Yorkshire accent – and Sam Claflin’s total non-entity of a prince charming, in a love triangle that is completely unnecessary and almost impossible for the film to explain. While it may make no sense in the context of the story, this kind of threeway should be right in Stewart’s wheelhouse, but instead she just looks confused and tired whenever she is on screen.

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN might not make much sense, and is constantly undermined by the ineptitude of its central performance, but it never holds back from its ambition to be an epic fantasy adventure. While it only occassionally manages to do so, its failure should be acknowledged as a noble one and Rupert Sanders can rest assured that he fulfilled his end of the bargain. Had the script stayed closer to the source material and the producers cast a lead actress who possessed warmth, charisma and real beauty, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN could have been something magical.