Half prequel, half sequel, and completely hollow, The Huntsman: Winter’s War does nothing to distinguish itself as a standalone adventure. Not only is it a spinoff of a reimagining of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale – Snow White and the Huntsman, it also borrows heavily from several other adventure sagas.
While the movie awkwardly acknowledges Snow White’s presence in this universe and uses the fabled mirror as a weak MacGuffin, the range of influences used to stitch together a patchwork plot is broad and obvious. From aping recent Disney outings Brave and Frozen to forays into Narnia and Middle Earth, Winter’s War is like a mixtape of better-realized fantasy worlds. Not even narration from Liam Neeson can add gravitas, or lend coherence, to the proceedings.
The first episode introduces Freya (Emily Blunt) and her sister Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), the antagonist from the first film. A traumatic event turns Freya’s heart cold, and, suddenly bestowed with the ability conjure ice, she retreats to rule a wintry kingdom of her creation. In order to conquer surrounding lands, Freya abducts and trains children to be her Huntsmen – an elite fighting force. The wunderkinds of her army are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), who share a forbidden love.
After (another) tragedy, and the entirety of Snow White and the Huntsman, Eric is tasked with tracking down the enchanted mirror – because it is vaguely evil, and either taking it somewhere or destroying it. It’s never quite clear and doesn’t really matter; it’s just an excuse to traipse through various CGI lands and build to a requisite third act showdown between good and evil.
One of the problems of Winter’s War, however, is its ill-defined villainy. Ravenna is clearly wicked, though she disappears for a huge chunk of the movie and her motivations aren’t apparent when she returns. Freya is a tragic figure whose grief spawned megalomania, but there’s no clear conflict with her until she threatens to attack Snow White’s realm, a warning that relies on the namecheck alone to fuel the stakes.
The cast tries. Hemsworth is just as capable a hero with an axe as he is with Mjölnir, and Chastain is convincing as a determined warrior. Battle scenes where they’re fighting in tandem offer brief highlights and their contentious romantic chemistry works. Their only weakness is mastering a Scottish accent, each of them struggling with uneven intonation. Why Scottish? I don’t know, though it makes for some quippy exchanges with the heroes’ dwarf comic relief tag-alongs (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, and Sheridan Smith).
Blunt and Theron have the ability and the willingness to chew the goofy scenery, but are given way too little opportunity to do so. The computer-generated manifestations of their malevolence – freezing stuff and some unexplained black goo, respectively, are as uninspired as the characters.
None of the visuals from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor of the first film, stand out as particularly memorable or original. There’s an owl sidekick, only this time it’s frozen instead of mechanical like it was in Clash of the Titans. There are goblins that look like background orcs from Lord of the Rings. Castle exteriors and enchanted forests could’ve been lifted from anywhere and are nondescript, save for a grassy snake that looks kind of neat.
There’s nothing to see that we haven’t seen before and nothing in the nebulous plot to latch on to. Loyalties are tested and retested for the sake of “twists,” obstacles are contrived, and fairytale sentiment is non-existent. The real battle of Winter’s War is the fight to find a point, which proves to be futile.