The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13.
Everyone gets an origin story, even the huntsman who keeps owning half of the title of these “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” retellings. A prequel-cum-sequel to 2012’s solid, visually arresting “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” has the same look as that medieval fairy tale and maybe a little more lightness but doesn’t always seem to know what to do with itself, story-wise. In sum, it has no veritable reason to exist, however, the production design is very, very pretty and a couple of the performances are camptastic enough to entertain. Refreshingly, the women are almost always the ones in charge here, even if the film names itself after its least interesting character.
Long before there was a Snow White, there were royal sisters Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt). When Freya loses her child to her suddenly murderous husband, she unleashes her once-dormant ice powers. Consumed by grief and anger, Freya builds her own palace out of ice and trains an army of children to fight her wars. Two of her most skilled soldiers, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), have now grown. Though Freya forbids anyone to love in her kingdom, Eric and Sara succumb to their passion for one another. Taking it as betrayal, Freya separates the lovers with frosty dark magic and thwarts their plan to run away together. Seven years later after Queen Ravenna is killed, Eric is called upon by Snow White, now the ruler of the kingdom, to find the missing Magic Mirror that keeps the thought-dead Ravenna impossible to defeat.
Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos (2014’s “Hercules”) and Craig Mazin (2013’s “The Hangover Part III”), “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is, once again, a little “The Lord of the Rings” with its goblins, dwarves and evil objects and, this time, a little “Frozen,” minus the songs and an adorable snowman. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film’s Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor, makes his directorial debut and makes sure the visuals dazzle at least because the script is overstretched with Liam Neeson spelling everything out as Mr. Narrator. Too often, the film even fakes out the viewer with the deaths of characters and then reneges on his or her fate. Following Eric’s journey to find the Magic Mirror, all that’s truly left is a diverting showdown between the huntsmen and the royal sisters. There's also the clumsy attempt to work around Snow White not making an appearance. It’s just odd when she’s the subject of conversation but only seen once from the back—an obvious body double—in front of a mirror. The excuse for her absence is made by her husband, King William (Sam Claflin), telling Eric that Snow White is terribly unwell. Whether it was actually due to Kristen Stewart’s adulterous scandal with the first film’s director, Rupert Sanders, or that she just had no interest in this story, the actress didn’t miss much.
Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain are up for the swashbuckling physical challenges and get to do some liplocking in the hot springs as Eric and Sara, but they mostly go through the paces. Their romance works even less than their matching Scottish accents. An over-the-top, deliciously evil Charlize Theron is given little to do for most of the film, but she gets to go big and gnaw on that scenery again with relish as her Ravenna is still consumed by vanity and power and ugliness. This is Emily Blunt’s show, though. As ice queen Freya, she is fun to watch but restrained and manages to bring a little tragic shading. This time, the merry band of eight dwarves only appear in passing, but Nick Frost does reprise his role as Nion and has a prominent part in the story, as does Rob Brydon’s Gryff, Nion’s half-brother. Initially, Frost and Brydon make obnoxious comic relief that one wishes they were frozen by Freya immediately, but then they find an amusing back-and-forth banter with a feisty Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach as flirty female dwarves Bromwyn and Doreen.
As long as the Evil Queen and the Ice Queen are parading across the screen, the film remains watchable. Unfortunately, we’re supposed to care about the huntsman and his huntswoman’s relationship, and Charlize Theron’s Ravenna (despite being included in the early going before the film becomes a sequel) doesn’t show up until the last act where she becomes as unstoppable as the T-1000. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” also gets by on empty spectacle, so by the criterion of Colleen Atwood’s elaborate costume design and everything else visible to the human eye, it would be a recommendation. Otherwise, this unnecessary prequel/sequel/spin-off can be left out in the cold.
Grade: C +