It’s unusual that a big-budget movie offers both a prequel and a sequel to a successful predecessor—and yet you still leave it feeling cheated. Nevertheless that’s the case with “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” the continuation of 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which was no great shakes but in retrospect looks sterling by comparison. Except for the CGI variety, there’s no magic whatever to be found in this grim fractured fairy tale that cribs pretty shamelessly from previous smashes—“Frozen” in particular—without making good use of the pilfering.
Despite her first billing the last time around, Snow White is virtually absent this time around, but that’s undoubtedly due to Kristen Stewart’s wise decision to exit the series, though the scripters attribute it to the malevolent magic mirror that serves as the MacGuiffin here. The first half-hour of “War” is the prequel to “Snow,” introducing Emily Blunt as Freya, the initially mousy sister of Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, reprising her role), who’s busily gobbling up kingdoms by killing off their rulers with the aid of that mirror. Freya, who unlike Ravenna has not yet discovered how to unleash her magical power, is impregnated by a handsome nobleman (Colin Morgan), but he’s betrothed to another, and when Freya is made to believe that he incinerated their child, her abilities are finally realized, and she turns him into a giant icicle, which she promptly smashes to smithereens.
Freya thus becomes the Ice Queen of the Northern Realm, kidnapping children like Eric (Conrad Khan) and Sarah (Niamh Walter) and turning them into her devoted soldiers, the Huntsmen, who win more and more territory for her. As they grow up, however, Eric (Christopher Hemsworth) and Sarah (Jessica Chastain), now her best warriors, fall in love—something she, hating that emotion, considers a betrayal. She orders her other soldiers to attack them, and as a result Eric believes that Sarah has been killed, and he himself is tossed into a river, presumably to die.
Here the prequel ends, and one must insert the whole of “Snow White,” in which Eric, who survived his watery fate, aided Snow in defeating Ravenna (who was engulfed in the mirror) and taking control of the realm. The sequel part of the picture follows. Now known simply as The Huntsman, Eric is approached by Snow’s husband King William (Sam Claflin), who tells him that the mirror has had a dire impact on his wife (shown in brief flashbacks of Stewart and shots of someone else from behind) and must be removed to a safe sanctuary. Unfortunately, it’s been stolen in transit—by goblins, as it turns out—and William asks Eric to retrieve the thing before Freya gets her hands on it. He reluctantly agrees, even more reluctantly taking on two dwarfs, chubby Nion (Nick Frost) and avaricious Gryff (Rob Brydon), as his sidekicks. Eventually they’ll be joined by Sarah, who surprisingly wasn’t killed by Freya at all and is peeved with Eric for having abandoned her, and by two chirpy dwarfettes, Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). They battle the goblins for the mirror, but Freya shows up to claim it; and it eventually releases Ravenna in her human form as well. The finale finds the heroes in the clutches of the two evil queens, though the sisters eventually having a falling-out that complicates matters.
“The Huntsman” is an explosion of visual effects—not the least being the flamboyant costumes Colleen Atwood has devised for Ravenna and Freya, which are so elaborate that they practically prevent the actresses from doing much more than inching along the floor and carefully moving their facial muscles—and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is somewhat less gloomy this time around, so it’s possible to discern the action better. The screen is often filled with Freya’s icy tricks and Ravenna’s oily tentacle attacks, which are impressive enough, though frankly the goblins are too cartoonish by half.
But that pretty much exhausts the movie’s virtues. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan seems so concerned with the effects that he botches the basics. The script can be blamed for having the hero get beaten up and captured with tedious regularity; but the director is responsible for the fact that Hemsworth, not the most charismatic actors under the best of circumstances, plods through the action so joylessly, and that the numerous fight sequences are so poorly choreographed and sloppily edited (by Conrad Buff). He also has to bear responsibility for the utter lack of chemistry between Hemsworth and Chastain (who looks decidedly unhappy throughout) in their romantic scenes. Moreover, though the lines given to Theron and Blunt represent purple prose at its worst, it’s Nicolas-Troyan who encourages them to deliver them with almost comical solemnity. And while Frost and Brydon are adept farceurs, they’re saddled with persistently lame material as the squabbling dwarfs, and the result isn’t appreciably more amusing than one of those wretched old routines in a Heckle & Jeckle short. (Smith fares better through sheer force of personality.)
The accumulation of flaws–including the periodic intrusion of a pompous narrator who adds a bunch of obvious lessons the story is supposed to teach–insures that despite its obviously substantial budget and expert craft contributions (including Dominic Watkins’ production design, Frank Walsh’s art direction and Dominic Capon’s set decoration), “The Huntsman” quickly becomes a dreary bore, a tedious mishmash that will appeal to no one along the age spectrum. The sole satisfaction one is likely to get from it is the assurance that, given its mediocrity, it should end a series that was stillborn from the start.