Snow White and the Huntsman: The Fairest Feminist of Them All

What's that mirror talking about? No one is fairer than Charlize Theron. Unless we're talking inner beauty—which is exactly what this movie is about.

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Universal Pictures

The underlying message of Snow White and the Huntsman, the darkly re-imagined, thrilling new spin on the classic fairy tale, is that focus on and insecurity over one’s physical appeal to men is poison to a woman’s soul. That’s hardly a news flash—feminists and good mothers have been preaching this for ages, but movies, with their emphasis on genetic lottery winners, tend to steadily undermine the message even when supposedly celebrating it. When’s the last time you thought the wicked stepmother or evil queen could defeat the heroine within the shallow auspices of a beauty contest? This Snow White, albeit 10 minutes too long and loaded with the standard action sequences of 21st century summer, feels excitingly progressive because it actually represents the victory of inner beauty. Not to cast aspersions on the loveliness of Kristen Stewart, but I believe—or hope—that’s the result of an intentionally bold move by first-time director Rupert Sanders in terms of casting his two female leads.

The impossibly beautiful—and youthful—Charlize Theron plays the wicked stepmother and sorceress, Queen Ravenna, who appears first in the guise of a victim, supposed chattel of a rogue (magical) army invading the kingdom of Snow White’s widowed father, King Magnus (Noah Huntley). She quickly suckers him into marrying her. Beauty is her power and her curse—she seethes with resentment for the male response to her glory and offs the poor fool before consummation. Little Snow is tossed into a tower prison. About 10 years later, when Snow White—played by Kristen Stewart, hair dyed black, lips stained red, skin as pale as a Cullen’s—comes of age, Ravenna’s magic mirror dares to tell her Snow White is the fairest of them all. Ravenna will have to kill Snow and consume her heart in order to reclaim her title.

(READ: TIME talks to the Huntsman—Chris Hemsworth)

Mirror, mirror, who is your manufacturer and where might they process returns? Theron glows even when Ravenna’s magical powers are waning and she’s allegedly looking haggard. Dressed by costume designer Coleen Atwood in fantastically over-the-top numbers worthy of the best days of Alexander McQueen, Theron is a goddess, a breathtaking piece of human perfection. You can see why a judgmental mirror would tell Mirror, Mirror’s wicked stepmother Julia Roberts that lovely young Lily Collins, as rose-like and Disney-beautiful as they come, had the edge. But the mirror in Snow White and the Huntsman is addressing something deeper than pillowy lips and even features. What makes Stewart’s Snow White fairer is what is inside her, humanity, empathy and character. Snow’s mother wished for a child (seen in prologue) to mimic a rose she found blooming in winter—its beauty, but more than anything, its strength, a description never mentioned in Grimm. Which is the essence of Snow White and the Huntsman’s Snow, who leaps into raw sewage, then a churning sea and plunges into an enchanted forest to escape and rally her people with the passionate cry, “Who will be my brother?”

The men Snow encounters, with the exception of Ravenna’s freakily coiffed brother (Sam Spruell), who has a pervy interest in her, and the world’s worst Louise Brooks hairdo, aren’t immediately dazzled by the girl. The Huntsman (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth), a hunk nursing the heartbreak of his wife’s death, agrees to help her, but is largely unimpressed. He slices off the bottom of Snow’s dress, fashioning her a more travel-worthy tunic and when she looks taken aback, sneers, “Don’t flatter yourself.” It’s only when he sees the curious connection she has with a troll that the Huntsman starts to regard her as anything but a hapless girl. In another nod to a more modern heroine, their attraction builds slowly (especially considering Hemsworth could have chemistry with a potted plant).

(MORE: TIME’s take on Why Pop Culture Loves Fairy Tales Again)

It even takes a while for the dwarves (eight to start, mostly played by famous English actors like Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Eddie Marsan and shrunk to size by cinematic magic), to warm to her. They recognize her as “the one,” the designated savior of the land, only after seeing the woodland creatures respond to her. This sequence, the only one to truly pay homage to Walt Disney, is glorious—a live action version of a psychedelic paradise, complete with winking mushrooms, friendly fairies, and butterflies as thick as snow and pale as the moon. With Snow, played by this girl with the pointy chin, it’s the inner glow that counts, as it should be.

Twilight fans will likely vigorously disagree with this entire assessment and tell you that Kristen Stewart is the prettiest girl and the greatest actress in the world. At the risk of inflaming them, the truth is that her intimate, Twilight-mined knowledge of being the tentative, uncomfortable object of obsession dovetails nicely with what the trio of writers (Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini) apparently had in mind for this Snow White. This is no award-winning revelatory peformance, but Stewart holds her own.

I had thought the movie would be entirely Theron’s. Certainly she’s a wicked pleasure, even when hitting notes of hysteria that teeter on the absurd. Melodrama is Ravenna’s default mode and Snow White and the Huntsman gives her the back story to explain it. In the old days, no one fretted about the motivation of the likes of a wicked stepmother, but Ravenna is a victim (of rape and pillage if I’m not mistaking the intent of a hazy flashback). She’s also a founding member of a Second Wives Club, embittered by having served as a replacement wife for a king who had grown tired of his aging first wife. Her quest for eternal youth was a response to the expectation that she too would be replaced someday by someone younger and prettier. For Ravenna, beauty translates to power. (If that’s not an allegory for the Hollywood star system I don’t know what is. And in one of the movie’s many luscious special effects, the magic mirror assumes a masculine form that looks like a half-melted Oscar. Coincidence?) If there is no beautiful young woman available to suck the soul from, she digs the most awesome set of press-on nails ever into the still-beating heart of little birds and pops them in her mouth, a bloody amuse bouche. Closely analyzed, all this effort to stay pretty seems a backwards approach to rebelling against the opposite sex—why not welcome grey hairs and run for medieval congress?

But as a Gothic, nightmarish Grimm, not for children or preteens, Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds. Sanders, who has worked primarily in commercials, seems heavily influenced by Peter Jackson, and his action sequences, ripe with clanging armor and horse hooves tearing into earth, reflect a little of the majesty of Lord of the Rings. He’s less subtle though—in case you missed Snow’s dirty, of-the-people fingernails the first time, he shows them a couple more times—and his climatic moments of combat tend to involve senselessly whirling cameras. But he has a talent for propulsion and unpredictability, even with this well-known fairy tale. There are moments when you’re lost in the beauty of the scenery and/or the cast—oh that Welsh coast, those English moors, that Hemsworth swagger—and then suddenly there’s some shock that resets perceptions. Rare among the recent fairy tale adaptions (from Mirror Mirror to the dreadful Red Riding Hood) the invigorating Snow White and the Huntsman actually breathes new life into an old story.

MORE: Richard Corliss’s review of Thor

LIST: Where Red Riding Hood landed on Mary Pols’s list of Worst Films of 2011