The Huntsman: Winter’s War sees debut director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (a visual effects artist who worked as second unit director on the previous film) handed the keys to the kingdom. It awkwardly straddles the events of its predecessor, bafflingly acting as both prequel and sequel. Sam Claflin pops up part way through to relay the mental turmoil of his beloved Snow White, but he’s unable to make up for the sheer weirdness of the film talking about but not actually featuring her (unless the back of a stand-in’s head counts).
“It awkwardly straddles the events of its predecessor, bafflingly acting as both prequel and sequel”
With the exquisitely evil Ravenna (Theron) out of the action for the most part, the story instead focuses on her embittered Ice Queen sister Freya (Blunt) – herself a victim of Ravenna’s schemes – who develops rage-fuelled powers to rival those of her sibling. After experiencing heartbreak at the outset, Freya sets about building an unstoppable army, which she callously culls from the kidnapped offspring of the local villagers. Two such child soldiers grow up to be Sara (Chastain) and the aforementioned Eric (Chris Hemsworth), the best and bravest of the bunch, who fall head-over-heels in love and marry in secret – much to the chagrin of their ferociously jealous queen.
Following a dramatic altercation when their deceit is discovered, the story skips forward and lands on Eric’s attempts to retrieve the meddlesome Magic Mirror, accompanied once again by comic-relief dwarves: old chum Nion (Nick Frost) and newbie Gryff (Rob Brydon). In keeping with its fairly feminist bent (if you ignore the tendency toward scorned-woman stereotypes), the film introduces a couple of female dwarves – Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith, stealing the show) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach) – who get in on the action and claim a good share of the laughs.
The seesawing tone makes sense when you consider the contrasting backgrounds of its two screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin; the former worked on a slew of straight-to-DVD Disney films, alongside Hercules, while Mazin is the ‘wordsmith’ behind The Hangover Parts II and III, and Scary Movie 3 and 4. Although the fruity, sometimes enjoyably risqué, banter of The Huntsman’s vertically challenged quartet occasionally lifts the film from the doldrums, this tale of badass lovers lacks emotional punch, so insipid is the execution and muddled is the narrative.
“This tale of badass lovers lacks emotional punch”
The versatile and usually estimable Chastain comes undone as she labours with a pretty dreadful Scottish accent – she makes a convincing combatant, no question, but her heart is visibly not in this. As her similarly faux-Scottish beau Hemsworth pouts and smirks in a way that’s, at least, intermittently charming, while Blunt (coming off the back of blistering work in Sicario acquits herself adequately. Thankfully Theron, who rose above the middling original with her full-throttle villainess, does it again; she manages to snag all the best costumes and seems to be the only one having any fun here, even if there’s much less for her to sink her teeth into this time round.
Viewed in 3D, the discolouration only exacerbates the frequent gloom, the fight scenes are sparse and uninvolving, and anyone suffering second-rate fantasy film fatigue will feel their heart sinking at the sight of the watery, not-quite-there CG landscapes. With a story that purloins from Frozen, as well as less worthy but financially lucrative fare (Maleficent, Oz the Great and Powerful), this ill-conceived effort hobbles its way to its conclusion, leaving its awards-calibre cast flailing. Despite glimmers of hope, it’s little more than a cut-and-paste job that never quite has you under its spell.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8thApril.
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