Rating: ★★★½☆

“Twilightification” is a pejorative term that appears to have recently entered the common cinematic lexicon, denoting any entertainment media which has been stylistically or thematically preened to fit the tidy template of the Twilight films (ala the dire Red Riding Hood). In fact, it seems to be a term people warily wave around any remotely fantasy-based film starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner. Snow White and the Huntsman, a frighteningly confident feature debut from music video director Rupert Sanders, ably divorces itself from any such criticisms, and emerges as an impressive, cleverly postmodern take on the Brothers Grimm’s seminal fairytale.

While the bare essentials are as we know them, this is one spin on Snow White that is keen to make the story its own, switching out the more superfluous and predictable plot beats for something a little edgier and more amenable to modern audiences. From virtually its first scene, it is established as brutal and keen to put pressure on the 12A rating; our introduction to the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) sees her brutally stab her new husband, the King, to death. While other takes might shy away from the bloody particulars of such things, Sanders lingers on the infliction and the wound, enhancing the gravity of the violence while not exploiting it.

The Queen and Snow White (Stewart) are of course two sides of the same coin, and the Queen we meet here is a well-realised one, owing not only to Theron’s vicious, intimidating performance, but the wealth of screen time devoted to her character development. We feel her sadness – a hint at a tragic past of neglect is one of this update’s smarter additions – and thanks to bang-up make-up work, we are convinced by both her youthful veneer and her vile “true form” (not that Charlize needs any help looking young).

Snow White, is of course, innocence at its most pure and literally beautiful, but what really impresses is the transformation of the source text from one which seems anachronistic in light of feminism – waiting for a man to save the day – into one of proactive escape from one’s oppressors. The seemingly delicate fairytale figurehead is repositioned as a gutsy leader of men – a risky move, and one which didn’t work so well in Tim Burton’s flaccid Alice in Wonderland – with Stewart’s intensity making up for her waifish, presumably inoffensive frame. It would definitely be fair to say that Theron patently outdoes Stewart in the pic’s first half, dominating the screen, but she later bows out for a lengthy time, giving both Stewart and Snow White time to forge their identities.

As far as the world is rendered, sophisticated visual effects help to amplify a deeply expressionistic style; within the perilous dark woods, trees literally ooze black, and their branches are built of snakes. Striking cinematography from Greig Fraser – who previously lensed the dazzling Let Me In – creates a strong contrast between the Queen’s bleak, miasmic empire, and the bright, optimistic land occupied by the dwarves. The fantastical imagery encountered later on – of fairies and magical animals – is cute and imaginative without ever falling into the sickeningly whimsical. James Newton Howard meanwhile delivers a score as reliable as is to be expected, enhancing the visuals and helping to create a strong atmosphere.

As for the dwarves, it is difficult to imagine how the studio managed to resist focusing on them, because they’re a real hoot. Frankly, the conceit is too good to spoil outright, but Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane are wonderful here, injecting energy back into proceedings just as it seems set to run on fumes. The combination of trick photography and visual effects is staggering, and a pleasant head-scratcher.

Akin to the story’s own interplay between light and dark, Sanders gets the balance between fiery and fluffy just right. Downcast and broody though it often is, the dwarves along with Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman keep things from becoming overly self-serious, as has plagued most of the Twilight films, for instance. With accents being something of a wild card affair throughout, Hemsworth’s Scottish riff is an odd but ably-handled choice, though one which will likely be endlessly scrutinised regardless. Nevertheless, he convinces as both a rugged, tragic tough man and alongside the dwarves, palpable comic relief, a much sought-after diversity of talent.

You’d be fair to expect that a story like this can be predicted by-the-numbers, but several subversive story retrofits keep us guessing. Spelled out in less expository terms than a fairytale intended for easy digestion by children, the story takes on a new form, which adults as well as tweens will appreciate. It doesn’t skimp on the darkness, and in fact, is probably closer to the works of Christopher Nolan than those of Stephenie Meyer. Next to Tarsem’s recent take on the material – the shambolic Mirror Mirror – it looks even better.

More The Dark Knight than Twilight, this is one fairytale update that packs an impressive punch and a deft, human touch.

Snow White and the Huntsman is released May 30th in the UK and on June 1st in the US.

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This article was first posted on May 28, 2012