(CNN) -- Twice upon a time: Hollywood's second stab at "Snow White" this season has an entirely different feel to the campy Julia Roberts and Lily Collins version "Mirror Mirror" we saw back in March.
Not necessarily better, but different.
Where Tarsem created an ersatz, theatrical Neverland and lodged his tongue firmly in his cheek, debut feature director Rupert Sanders plays the familiar story entirely straight, integrates spectacular shape-shifting CGI effects within the natural world, and re-imagines Snow White as a kind of revolutionary leader. The main character in "Snow White and the Huntsman" is more Joan of Arc than Barbie princess.
This is an altogether less girly fairytale, with epic battles, chase sequences through castle sewers, and a romance so tentative it's barely there.
Still, if Sanders is squeamish when it comes to the lovey-dovey stuff, he gives Charlize Theron her head as the evil Queen Ravenna. Not just a wicked witch, Ravenna is a monstrous gargoyle of feminine wiles, a spiritual vampire who feeds on others' youthful vitality and leaves them old and wizened in her stead.
Do we really need to see Ravenna's backstory, an explanation for her psychotic hatred of men and her insatiable hunger for beauty and power? I would suggest not. Freud needs fairy tales more than fairy tales need any intervention from him, but in any case Theron makes a magnificently malevolent b****, with a customized crown of horns to accompany each and every wardrobe. This is a real performance, sculpted and thought-through; Theron gives the picture some spine.
As Snow White, Kristen Stewart supplies the heart.
She immediately cuts a more self-confident figure than Collins. She wears leggings underneath her gowns and she isn't about to play housemaid to any dwarves, either. Stewart -- like Theron -- carries off a serviceable English accent and mostly refrains from those irritating Bella-isms, but it's not so easy to take her seriously as the messianic resistance leader that Sanders seems to have in mind (you get the feeling the director thinks he's auditioning for the next "Narnia" movie, or even Middle Earth).
Meanwhile "Thor" hunk Chris Hemsworth extends his range by swapping his hammer for an axe and almost losing a fight now and then.
Despite some polishing from big-name screenwriters John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") and Hossein Amini ("Drive"), Evan Daugherty's screenplay is more functional than fun. There's not much in the way of sparkling wit or even idle banter to punctuate the action.
But the movie's visuals sing. Director of photography Greig Fraser ("Bright Star"; "Let Me In") conjures spellbinding images of rugged castles and English marshlands, and the CGI is so organic to this landscape that we hardly blink when a tree stump reveals itself as a giant troll. The Dark Woods are a hallucinogenic nightmare of scuttling creatures and pustulated swamps, while an interlude in "Fairyland" is pure kitsch but charmingly imaginative: Toadstools have eyes, and flower petals transform into fluttering butterflies.
As for the seven dwarves -- I almost forget! -- they're played, Hobbit-style, by the usually non-dwarfish likes of character actors Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Brian Gleeson, Nick Frost, Toby Jones and Eddie Marsan. It's a shame to have assembled a cast like that and given them so little to do. Again, the CGI is seamless, and kudos to the hair and make-up department, but there was more warmth and wonder back in Disney's hand-drawn animation. Heigh-ho.
"Snow White and the Huntsman" is rated PG-13 and is not suitable for younger children.