Charlize Theron as the archetypal wicked stepmother, resplendent in the tackiest golden-feathered dress this side of Donald Trump. Emily Blunt as an evil snow queen, a shameless grown-up knock-off of Elsa from Frozen two years after she was cool. Chris Hemsworth as an axe-wielding huntsman and Jessica Chastain as his bow-wielding ex-wife, both sporting hammy Scottish brogues. On the surface, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a bizarre fantasy epic hitting theaters this weekend, had all the trappings of a camp classic, but as the film quickly reveals, it has none of the fun.
Why the movie, which seeks to continue the (very much concluded) tale of Snow White’s triumph over her mirror-obsessed stepmother, exists at all is one of those big Hollywood quandaries. It nominally follows Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2012 surprise hit that turned the classic fairy tale into a CGI-laden military brouhaha, but its title character (played by Kristen Stewart) is absent. Without Stewart, it’s pretty unlikely this entry will turn much of a profit; beyond that, it struggles to justify its own existence from the most basic story perspective. Franchises may be Hollywood’s current obsession, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a viewer desperate to learn the origin story of Snow White’s helpful Huntsman.
But learn it you do! The Huntsman: Winter’s War is not only a sequel, but also a sort of prequel, filling in the backstory of Hemsworth’s titular character, who spent most of the first movie toting two hand-axes and flashing the camera with an occasional wicked grin. It turns out he was a child soldier enlisted to the cause of the wicked ice queen Freya (Blunt), sister to Ravenna (Theron), the evil queen who eventually met her end at Snow White’s blade. Confused? You should be. The ice queen’s inclusion seems like a lame gimmick, and a misuse of Blunt’s extensive talents on a role that’s both familiar to audiences (thanks to Disney’s Frozen) and firmly in the public domain (Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”).
The Huntsman, also known as Eric, falls for a salty warrior named Sara (Chastain). But Freya, her heart hardened by her own personal tragedies, splits them up and exiles Eric, who thinks Sara’s dead. The film, clunkily written by Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos, then endeavors to remind viewers of the last entry’s story as it cuts several years ahead, reuniting Eric and Sara as they seek to take down Freya and reclaim her sister’s magic mirror, which still holds her vicious essence. The plot should really be beside the point—whatever audience this film has is watching for the loopy visuals and surprisingly stacked cast, not the hodgepodge, remixed fairy tale being told.
But this strange prequel/sequel approach is so belabored, it continually grinds the film to a halt trying to explain just who everyone is and what they’re doing there. Many questions go unanswered—why are Chastain and Hemsworth Scottish? Why do we get only four dwarves (two played by the excellent British comic actors Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, utterly wasted) this time around? Just why does this film take so long to bring Theron back into the mix when she’s clearly its ace card, the only one who knows how to have any fun amidst all the boring action sequences? Like its predecessor, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a cartoonish creation set in no particular time or place, but its CGI embellishments do nothing to lend it any real character.
Snow White and the Huntsman was goofy, but it had its charms, mostly hinging on Stewart’s strange brand of superstar stoicism, Theron’s amped-up supervillainy, and some nicely surreal visuals (the magic mirror was an anthropomorphic pile of golden glop that would spill out onto the Queen’s lush carpet). The Huntsman: Winter’s War is directed by the last film’s visual-effects supervisor, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. As a VFX master, he’s clearly a top-notch hire, but this is his first directing gig, and it shows ... painfully. Blunt is a tremendous actress, but she seems lost at sea amid the green screen. Chastain and Hemsworth, two of Hollywood’s most charming performers, have all the romantic chemistry of two people who literally just met.
Perhaps The Huntsman: Winter’s War was intended to start a new franchise, one that smashed together every available children’s story into a complicated universe of Oscar nominees cashing big paychecks. It fails, not even providing satisfying action or arresting visualizations of magic in its nearly two-hour running time; beyond that, it doesn’t give its talented cast much to work with. When people gripe about Hollywood’s reliance on sequels and cheap franchise cash-ins, this is the kind of movie they mean: no Grimm’s Fairy Tale, but a grim tale nonetheless.