When the time comes for the history of Hollywood in the 21st century to be written, there may be a surprising amount of space devoted to “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.” Few films better sum up this desperately franchise-thirsty era of studio moviemaking better. It’s the followup to a gritty, big-budget reboot “Show White And The Huntsman,” willed into existence by executives desperate for something that would let them compete with their universe building, tentpole rivals, despite 1) the original film’s female lead, Kristen Stewart, not returning, and 2) the original film underperforming theatrically and 3) no one liking the original film in the first place.
And yet here we are, a little under four years on, with “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” helmed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, visual-effects supervisor on the first film, taking over from Rupert Sanders, with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron reprising their roles, original Snow White found in some archive footage, and two acclaimed actresses, Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt, joining in. The sequel (or more accurately, prequel/sequel) is, pleasingly, more entertaining than its predecessor, but at the same time it doesn’t quite go so far as to provide a reason why it should exist at all.
Once upon a slightly earlier time, the evil Queen Ravenna (Theron) had a sister, the seemingly more mildly-tempered, less batshit Freya (Blunt). Freya had a baby, but tragically, the baby was seemingly burned to death by her lover (Colin Morgan), causing her to manifest some icy magical powers. She retreats to the North where she establishes her own kingdom, a frosty training ground for her well-trained child soldiers that she nicknames her Huntsman, including young orphans Eric (Hemsworth) and Sarah (Chastain). Moreover, she’s banned love, claiming she’s the living proof that it can’t conquer all.
But when they grow up, Eric and Sarah fall in love, only for the queen to discover and seemingly kill the latter, while banishing him. A jump in time through the plot of “Snow White & The Huntsman” finds the Magic Mirror has been stolen, and Snow White’s husband (Sam Claflin) tasks Eric, plus returning dwarf Nion (Nick Frost), and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon), with returning it, a job that brings them into the path of more than one figure from the Huntsman’s past.
It’s an odd structure for a film like this, with essentially a half-hour prologue leading into an actual story. But for a while, it feels like this particular act of universe expansion might be worthwhile, mostly thanks to Blunt’s performance. The temptation would have been for the actress to come and match Theron’s scenery-chewing (which the latter doubles down on in her small handful of scenes here), but Blunt, as ever, makes fascinating choices and finds a way to give the film’s “Frozen” meets “Game Of Thrones” narrative (in the early stages) an emotional punch.
The film shifts gears considerably in its second act, attempting to be a sort of fairytale “Romancing The Stone,” with a deliberately lighter tone intended to let Hemsworth and Chastain banter, while adding further attempted LOLs from the dwarf sidekicks. Again, there’s fitfully some good stuff here: Brydon is good value, essentially playing himself (or at least the version of himself in “The Trip”) in dwarf-samurai form and somehow making that work, while British TV star Sheridan Smith damn near walks away with the movie as lady-dwarf Mrs. Bromwyn.
The narrative drive is welcome too, the clear pursuit of a MacGuffin mirror proving more engaging than going over the familiar fairy tale beats of the previous film. And yet despite some fitfully interesting spots, it can’t take off, because its leads feel mismatched. Obviously, they’ve been proven to be excellent elsewhere: Thor doesn’t work as a character without Hemsworth walking the line of sincere heroism and fish out of water buffoonery, and he showed real dramatic chops in “Rush,” while Chastain is great in basically everything. But here, they’re both struggling uphill against accents they’re palpably not comfortable with, displaying zero chemistry, and frankly appearing to be in different films. Hemsworth attempts to give a lightness of touch that sometimes feels incongruous with the character, while Chastain goes darker and more intense in a way that can sink the gags.
The third act is a different film again, and unfortunately not a good one: ending not with a bang but with some CGI effects that suggest that no one learned anything from the lousy finale of the last film, it hammers home that there’s something wholly perfunctory about the whole affair. Scenes take place, but with the bare minimum of interest or engagement, as if everybody’s rushing to get the credits all of a sudden.
There’s very little in “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” itself that is actively bad. Compared to some of its blockbuster rivals, it’s reasonably watchable, never offensive, and mostly coherent. It does what it needs to do, namely “be another movie with the word huntsman in the title.” But it also feels like a prime example of so much of what’s so bad about studio movies today: pursuing franchises at the expense of all else (down to a cravenly sequel-chasing last line), wasting good talent on material that’s unworthy of them, falling back on CGI rather than story, filmmaking driven by committee rather than vision. And as such, despite the fitful moments of charm or craft, it’s an impossible movie to root for. [C-]