(Warning: Major spoilers throughout) The buzz leading up to Snow White and the Huntsman was relentless: This was to be the darker, bleaker spin on the familiar fantasy. And after seeing the remake, I guess that’s partially true: The Evil Queen, as embodied by the milk-bathing, soul-sucking, hallucinating, carcass-eating Charlize Theron, was indeed one degree more twisted than I had expected. But as for the rest of this plodding reimagining, it wasn’t more macabre or mysterious; it was just more tethered to conventional thinking and mainstream filmmaking. In other words: More predictable and lazy. More boring.
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After seeing the film (and if you haven’t, you should really stop reading now before I ruin everything), I thought the low point in the production’s downward trajectory was Snow White’s fiery rallying of her army to take back the castle. Fed up with the Evil Queen, empowered by her resurrection from the dead (thanks to the magical kiss from her main drunkard, er, Huntsman), Kristen Stewart delivers her best Mel Gibson impression in front of the gathered infantry. She screams of injustice, of freedom, of sacrifice and better days, and then leads us all into a frantic closing montage that finds armed riders crashing through castle gates (drawn up by some intrepid dwarfs), dodging boiling oil as they strike down oncoming waves of the black army. The climactic showdown involves the mysterious supernatural ghost warriors that defend the Queen – henchman composed of flying shards, who punish the Huntsman relentlessly as he searches for a way to kill these floating swarms of metal.
Now I ask, sincerely: What here holds any link to the realm of Snow White? I have no doubt that director Rupert Sanders thought he was modernizing the thing, or making it relevant for a new generation of teen boys (the only demographic Hollywood cares about any more), but instead what he’s done is strip away all that was novel about early visions in his push to frame the story in a timelier cinematic context. The film’s climactic battle is interchangeable with just about any other big screen castle siege from the past 20 years. The trek through the enchanted forest this time around could easily be Narnia or Middle Earth. The angry troll could be a Kraken. As soon as the Huntsman and Snow White slip from the clutches of Finn — who, oddly enough, might be the most distinctive character in the film — Snow White devolves into the routine.
Still, in one form or another, all the familiar Snow White elements are here — the forest, the poisoned apple, the loving prince, the dwarfs. And there’s some novelty in seeing how Sanders and company toy with the concept of the Evil Queen; her mirror seems less magical than a figment of her fractured imagination, her evil nature stems from a spell cast on her by her mother which requires murders to preserve her outer beauty, her milk baths and transformations into a flock of birds have a creepy and ethereal quality to them. But all these ironic references and momentary throwbacks are but minor diversions. When I think back to this new and “improved” Snow White, my mind keeps returning to the resurrection, and the rallying cry. Here is Snow White, revived and raging — which never happened in the original — sporting armor and screaming out to her vengeful army. Snow White as warrior princess: it’s a bizarre sight to behold. And this isn’t just the low point of the film, and the most derivative plot twist imaginable, but it may also mark the low point of Kristen Stewart’s career. An actress who has become famous for her vulnerability, for evoking a torn conscience and an aching heart, Stewart plays Snow White as a bruised rose until this final act, when she must go thorny instead. Shreaking out to her men, leading the charge, here’s a woman — and a character — who couldn’t look more out-of-place.
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That said, it sure makes for a good marketing campaign: Lots of swords, shields, furious horse-riding and a glimpse of the Evil Queen’s mystical shard creature. The relentless TV ad campaign promised a bigger and badder fairy tale — a fantasy epic, with action to spare. But as with so many recent “epics,” from The Avengers to Immortals, Transformers and stretching all the way back to the Star Wars prequels, the human-vs.-CGI-creature approach is anything but thrilling. It’s chaos without character; empty eye candy. And that’s why the Snow White twists didn’t just bore me, but angered me: Gone was the otherworldly mood, texture and atmosphere which made the earlier vision a classic.
These are the surrealistic elements which originally led filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to name the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the greatest film ever made, as he recognized the cinematic freedom afforded by animation, paving the way for more detail, mystery and metaphor. That Snow White rose above the limitations of sets, actors, camera equipment and genre conventions. I shudder to think what Eisenstein would say of this new Snow White, so hopelessly bound to marketing requirements and genre formulas, so intent on replicating the “fantasy epic” routine. After seeing Snow White, I went home and watched the 1937 original on my laptop via eight different low-def YouTube clips; woefully cumbersome, fewer special effects, no big movie stars…yet so much more magical.
Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.