They may have the same story at the core, but March’s light and fluffy Mirror Mirror isn’t even close to the dark and twisted fantasy that is Snow White and the Huntsman.

To put the “nice little, candy-coated joyride” that starred Lily Collins and Julia Roberts in the same league as this Kristen Stewart/Charlize Theron bit of heady adventure would be a little like comparing Hoodwinked to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves; sure, they both feature a girl wearing a red cloak, but that’s where the similarities end.

Snow White and the Huntsman instantly evokes the feel of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. In the hands of first-time director Rupert Sanders, the age-old story of Snow White becomes a standout among fairytale movies– augmented by Theron’s screaming-mad evil Queen Ravenna and also by The Twilight Saga‘s Kristen Stewart, who (surprise!) finally proves that she indeed has a pulse.

The story is, by and large, the same as always; Ravenna kills the king (Snow’s father), becomes queen, asks her mirror who’s the fairest, and orders Snow killed when the mirror gives an answer the queen doesn’t like. And there’s the huntsman (Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth) who’s given the task but ends up saving Snow White and helping her rightfully take her seat as ruler of the kingdom.

There are also dwarves (though here, eight), a poison apple, and all manner of storyland creatures, from fairies to wicked trolls.

Gone is the handsome prince and the helpless, pretty girl who relies on him to be rescued, instead replaced by a particularly fierce Stewart and an almost non-existent love story (does Snow like the belligerent, drunk huntsman or the little boy from her childhood who grew up to be Duke?)

Credit the rock-solid screenplay from first-timer Evan Daugherty, who wisely elected to more closely follow the original Grimm version of the tale. His take jumps-starts a genre that by all rights should have been left for dead after 2010’s mindless Red Riding Hood.

Sanders proves early in Huntsman that he’s ready to graduate from making Nike commercials and short films; virtually every shot is an eye-popping gem, from the delicate image of a drop of blood landing in the snow to the no-holds-barred castle siege that wraps things up.

Plus, he’s able to get several stand-out performances to power things along. What Theron lacks in her ability to maintain a faux British accent is made up for by a performance that’s a perfect mix of raving madwoman and quiet, scheming villain. And Stewart finally comes out of her doe-eyed, Twilight mopeyness to take charge as a kind of medieval Katniss Everdeen.

Sanders also had some fun casting the dwarves; it’s great fun to see Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost (among others) ‘shortened’ to fit the part.

Hemsworth may be the one complaint; the power that oozed out of his pores during Thor and The Avengers is gone, replaced by a blandness that suggests he’s just along for the ride.

Overall, Huntsman is a welcome addition (and savior) to the fairytale movie catalog; just don’t spend too much time in the debate over apples and oranges. Save it for next year, when a pair of Hansel and Gretel movies are set to duke it out.

4/5 stars