Despite a bonanza of commercials touting otherwise, and a cloying first act voiceover that tries desperately to marry together a series of disparate stories and unrelated characters, “The Hunstman: Winter’s War” is not a prequel to the popular 2012 revisionist take on the Snow White mythos, “Snow White and the Huntsman.” That first film reworked the Snow White story into a flashy, battle-stuffed modern taken on the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale, positioning Snow White as a war-ready orphan bent on revenge against an evil queen (Charlize Theron), as aided by a hunky huntsman (Chris Hemsworth).
Now, hamstrung by behind-the-scenes issues that kept both the original director (Rupert Sanders) and Snow White herself (Kristen Stewart) from returning to the ostensible franchise, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is expected to serve as both a continuation of and an explanation for many of the events of the first film. It fails on both accounts.
Initially, the film flashes back to a few years before the action of “Snow White and the Huntsman” played out, re-introducing us to Theron’s Queen Ravenna (evil as ever), who has just happily offed yet another king in pursuit of gobbling up yet another kingdom all for herself. Despite her hard to shake (and seemingly unmotivated) evil, Ravenna is adored by her gentle younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt, new to the series). Although Ravenna is in full control of her (again, evil) powers, Freya’s birthright as a witchy woman has not yet emerged, and while she’s a bit sad about it, she’s mostly focused on an intense love affair with a cute prince. Ravenna, of course, isn’t a fan of love, and when a terrible tragedy befalls Freya that not only turns her heart to stone but also unleashes her ice queen powers (yes, whole swathes of the film feel as if they were ripped from some shoddy script titled “Frozen For Adults”), Ravenna is understandably excited. Freya, however, is just mad.
Cold as ice and kitted out in a series of increasingly stunning outfits (perhaps the real highlight of the film), Freya heads north, determined to raise a child army (sure?), teach them that love is a sin (okay?) and use their skills to conquer kingdom after kingdom (the logic is all a bit shaky). Partially meant to serve as an origin story for Hemsworth’s The Huntsman (aka Eric), the film zooms though training montages and a series of increasingly uninspiring speeches from Freya (“Do not love. It’s a sin.”) before the hunts-kids she’s kidnapped grow up into a very attractive (and very deadly) army, which happens to include both Eric and his eventual love interest Sara (Jessica Chastain, sporting a fake Scottish accent that is baffling on every account). Sounds stuffed, cluttered and strange, doesn’t it? That’s just the first act.
The majority of the film’s action takes place long after Eric and Sara’s love affair is discovered (you can probably guess how Freya reacts to it) and Eric has escaped the icy North to be a Huntsman of his very own. Now conscripted into service to help Snow White who, in the first and last smart move made by any of the film’s characters, has decided to banish the evil mirror that made the first film such a mess and continues to inflict pain on anyone who looks upon it, Eric embarks on another wild adventure to get rid of a piece of large (and largely) ugly home decor.
Eric’s journey brings him into contact with old and new friends (like Nick Frost, reprising his role as a dwarf, and newly joined by a half-brother played by Rob Brydon) and sets him on an unstoppable path straight to Freya, who wants the mirror for herself, even though she only knows about it because a telepathic ceramic owl she sends out into the world learns of it, mostly by accident (this is all true).
Despite Hemsworth’s frequent attempts to spice up the often drab feature with his turn-on charm, all winks and nods and knowing smiles, the film suffers terribly from its inability to identify and convey proper tone. Winging between deadly serious starts (this is a film that opens with an incinerated baby, for chrissakes), heartbreaking lost loves, kingdom-destroying action scenes and Blunt and Theron yelling at each other to the point of camp, the film never even comes close to striking a balance. Is it funny? Is it serious? It’s somehow both at the same time, and neither.
The film’s narrative is both plodding and predictable, and after the third or fourth battle sequence that leans so heavily on loud, thudding noises and swirling leather topcoats that it’s impossible to see who is actually hitting who (and, moreover, why), audiences may be in danger of remembering just which “reimagined” fairy tale they’re watching on screen. The trick is, of course, they’re not watching a reimagined fairy tale — they’re watching a reworking of a reimagining of a watered-down story that’s been forced into a franchise mold utterly unequipped to deliver an entertaining or coherent story. It’s worse than taking a bite of a poisoned apple, a la Snow White, because at least the apple had a reason for existing in the first place.
“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” opens in wide release this Friday.