A few years ago, it seemed that re-imagined fairy tales were set to take over cinemas in the same way superhero films did at the end of the nineties. Countless projects were touted, but when the bid for cinematic domination began, the opening shots fell short.

Alice in Wonderland may have made a decent haul at the box office, helped by an Avatar-inspired curiosity about 3D, but it was one of the worst films of 2010 – which is saying something considering that was also the year of The Wolfman, Clash of the Titans and Gulliver’s Travels – while last year’s Red Riding Hood was, amazingly, even worse – an insipid Twilight knock-off that was a combination of incomprehensible story, penny-pinching production design and terrible, lazy performances. And then there was Beastly – the less said about which, the better.

And so we come to this year’s effort, Snow White and the Huntsman. The signs weren’t great – a story by a first time screenwriter, quickly turned around by a first time director, and the producer of Alice in Wonderland, starring an actress whose primary claim to fame is to have spent the last four years chewing her face off whilst lusting after Robert Pattinson. Strangely though, while Snow White and the Huntsman should be rubbish, it’s not. Quite the opposite, it’s sort of terrific.

Hanging off a clever and well constructed screenplay, that touches on the expected elements of the Snow White story without once seeming predictable, the movie is very much the fantasy romp that previous efforts have promised, but failed to deliver. Not only is it well written, but director Rupert Sanders has created a world that feels completely believable, and truly epic. The astonishing production design helps here, but it’s the little details – from waterside villages to moss covered tortoises that really sell it. It’s so rich, that at times Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a live action Studio Ghibli movie.

Stewart has to tread a fine line as Snow White between passive victim and active protagonist, and it’s surprising how successfully she does so. It’s popular to criticise Stewart for a lack of range, but here her performance works quite well. What’s particularly impressive is how flawless her accent is. In fact, hers is the most consistent accent in the film, even amongst the cast members born and raised in England. By contrast Theron’s attempt changes more or less with every shot, while Hemsworth’s attempt at a Scottish accent – presumably to differentiate the Huntsman from his recent turn as Thor – is just a bit odd. It’s also provides for some unintentionally racist subtext, portraying the only Scotsman in the film as a violent drunk.

While Theron’s accent may be a little off, her performance isn’t. She spends much of the film snarling and screaming, leaving toothmarks in the scenery around her. She squeezes every bit of menace she can from the script. The only pity is that’s pretty much the only emotion she has. There’s a moment in the film where the queen is humanised a little, but that sympathy we feel for the character is only fleeting, as within seconds we’re back with snarling Charlize.

The film’s biggest issue is the lack of a sense of fun. It’s so po-faced that at times I half expected Christopher Nolan’s name to turn up somewhere in the end credits. The few comic moments are great, and a pleasant relief, but there simply aren’t enough of them, and the film suffers from it. In particular, there are times where it’s very hard to stay engaged with the movie, particularly when Snow White and her pet Huntsman are simply blundering around the countryside aimlessly.  That said, the film moves along at such a fast pace that this is only relevant for a fairly short time, and soon enough there’s something new and exciting to distract us.

Accents and a serious attitude aside, Snow White and the Huntsman is actually a very good film. Describing it as an impressive debut for Rupert Sanders is unfair. This would be an impressive film if it had been directed by Guilermo Del Torro or Peter Jackson. For a debut it’s truly astonishing. Stewart is sufficiently divisive anyway, that her presence will likely upset some viewers, but if you can get over the Twilight baggage, she’s actually rather good, and certainly holds her own against Theron. In all, it’s well worth a watch.