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Snow White and the Huntsman - Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Stewart
Snow White and the Huntsman - The huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and Snow White (Kristen Stewart) hide from forces commanded by an exceedingly evil queen © 2012 Universal Studios

When two studios announced they would be releasing separate Snow White movies this year, no one could have guessed that visionary director Tarsem Singh’s effort would fail to be the fairest. Yet while Singh’s Mirror Mirror was disappointingly dumb, first-time feature director Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman is an unexpectedly effective retelling of the classic tale as a gritty girl-power adventure.

Both movies recast Snow as a less passive participant in her fable, but Snow White and the Huntsman has none of Mirror Mirror‘s embarrassingly campy humor. Although there is a tiny bit of comic relief here, most of this movie plays things surprisingly straight and with a sharp edge. In other words, there will be blood.

Twilight Saga‘s Kristen Stewart is just a little bit off as Snow White, but her slightly tomboyish looks and awkward bearing fit the retooled and more rugged role. Imprisoned for 10 years by evil stepmother Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), this Snow isn’t happy to hide out playing happy homemaker after she escapes the castle. The long pants she turns out to be wearing under her gown are an apt metaphor for a princess who is more Joan of Arc than timid victim.

Snow White and the Huntsman - Charlize Theron
Brutally nasty Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is the unfairest of them all © 2012 Universal Studios

Theron is excellent as the viciously self-obsessed queen, who magically retains her beauty by siphoning the youth from helpless young women. The screenplay by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini gives her an equally sadistic brother (Sam Spruell) and a tragic back story.

Chris Hemsworth, best known for playing Thor in that character’s solo outing and this year’s The Avengers, displays none of that thunder god’s regal self-confidence here. His loutish, bearded and scraggly-haired huntsman is a crude drunkard with a broken spirit. He is convinced to track down Snow White by the queen’s dubious promise to bring his dead wife back to life if he succeeds, but he soon switches sides.

Sam Claflin is appropriately dashing as Snow’s childhood friend William, who has grown up to be a courageous duke opposing the queen’s rule. Movie magic makes it possible for actors including Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins and Toby Jones to play dwarfs, convincingly converting them to half-sized highwaymen. Like Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman re-imagines the dwarfs as disillusioned outsiders who have turned to a life of crime.

The movie’s other special effects are equally impressive. The queen creates a phantom army, changes into a flock of ravens and conjures up warriors made of shifting glass shards. Her magic mirror morphs into living liquid gold that rises in the shape of a hooded man. The dark forest into which Snow White escapes is a nightmare of terrors, while the dwarfs’ fantasyland sanctuary is a fairy tale paradise.

Snow White and the Huntsman runs a little long and could have benefited from cinematography that wasn’t quite so medieval murky. The movie also includes several of those distractingly obnoxious blue-line lens flares that have become a modern cinematic cliché. Also, a little more characterization may have kept everyone from seeming so consistently miserable.

Even with those flaws, the movie offers such an interesting approach to its familiar subject matter that it’s worth a look.

[Rating: 3 stars]

Snow White and the Huntsman has its theatrical release on Friday June 1, 2012. UK release May 30, 2012. Australia release June 21, 2012

The link to Amazon to find out Snow White and the Huntsman availability on DVD is here