Mirror, mirror, on the wall – did anyone ask for this sequel at all?
Billed as “the story before Snow White” (and the sequel to the $400-million global box office hit, “Snow White and the Huntsman”), “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a serviceable, sometimes funny, often visually beautiful film that is both harmless and unnecessary.
The first act of the movie assumes that you haven’t seen the original film, relying heavily on narrator Liam Neeson for exposition. We are reminded how Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and the huntsman previously defeated the bloodthirsty Ravenna (Charlize Theron), granting Snow White rightful control of her kingdom. We then dive into the prequel portion of the film, where we discover that Ravenna’s sweeter sister Freya (Emily Blunt) has not yet realized her powers. When Ravenna learns from her magical mirror that Freya’s daughter will one day threaten her title – “fairest of them all” – she hatches a murderous plan.
The rest of the movie’s plot can be gleaned from the trailer: “To escape the pain of her loss, the good queen built a fortress of ice around her heart. If she could not raise a child, she would raise an army.”
The titular huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), grows up under Freya’s rule as a child soldier. Though love is expressly forbidden here, a man as charming and goofy as Hemsworth cannot go unwanted for long, and he soon falls for Sara (a tough, Scottish-accented Jessica Chastain), his comrade in arms with a deadly accurate bow and arrow.
When Freya, in her fabulous chain-mail capes and generally stunning costuming (thanks to designer Colleen Atwood), discovers that two of her warriors are in love, she sends Eric away. According to Neeson, that’s when the events of “Snow White and the Huntsman” transpire, and so we jump forward by seven years.
Ravenna’s mirror continues to haunt Snow White, who tries to get rid of it; she sends it away under armed guard, but it is stolen en route. Tasked with finding the mirror before it reaches Freya and bestows unlimited power on her, Eric sets off on an adventure filled with magical mishaps and newfound friends.
The quest for the mirror represents a complete tonal shift in the film, but it’s for the better. Eric’s chemistry with Sara is rivaled by his banter with a band of dwarves (all of whom, notably, are played by CGI versions of tall actors). Comedic lines are delightfully self-aware, and range from an attempt by a she-dwarf (played by the hilarious Sheridan Smith) to get Eric to take his shirt off to the huntsman’s catastrophic fall down a series of roofs.”This is the worst plan ever,” he remarks to himself.
While the funny, action-packed sequences are the best parts, they are indicative of the film’s main problems: an inability to focus and an overly complicated plot. The first-third of the film shows children learning to murder indiscriminately, while the second-third is an adventure-comedy. Blunt plays her part believably – she’s both heartbroken and vengeful – while Theron outright chews the scenery.
“Winter’s War” ultimately treads a line between a slightly funnier version of “The Hunger Games” and a half-Gothic “Frozen.” When Freya discovers her ice powers and her hair turns white, you almost expect her to break into “Let It Go.”
The film seems a bit unsure of itself and its direction, leading to an ending that – while ambiguous – signals a certain confidence about one thing: another sequel.
Two stars. Rated PG-13. Contains fantasy action violence and some sensuality. 114 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.