The Huntsman: Winter's War is a film possessed of a severe identity crisis. It serves as both prequel and sequel to its predecessor, 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, but doesn't meaningfully build off of that film. It borrows from several fairy tales to build its story, but it doesn't hew close enough to any of them to be considered a real adaptation. It has three powerful female characters, but all of them are defined by how they have been affected by their relationships with men. Most of all, it doesn't seem to have a real voice of its own, coming off as an unweildy albeit occasionally exhilarating mash-up of the previous film, Frozen fan fiction, 80s sword-and-sorcery, and your friends totally epic, homebrew Dungeons and Dragons campaign that he won't shut up about, no matter how many times you ask. The problems in The Huntsman are impossible to discuss without a least a few spoilers, so...
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS FOR BOTH THIS FILM AND THE PREVIOUS ONE
The film starts about seven years before the events of Snow White, focusing on Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her sister Freya (Emily Blunt). When a personal tragedy awakens Freya's inherent ice-magic powers, she flees the castle, and before you can say "Let it go upon penalty of death", she's conquering territory left and right and conscripting the children of her new kingdom into a personal army she calls the Huntsmen. She declares love to be illegal under her reign, which poses a problem when her most talented Huntsmen, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), fall in love and marry in secret. Freya forces the lovers apart, and Eric watches Sara die before he's expelled from the kingdom. Flash forward to the current day, as it were, and Prince William (Sam Claflin in a thankless cameo) conscripts Eric to track down Ravenna's Magic Mirror, which was lost on its way to Sanctuary, the only place in the kingdom where the mirror's dark power can be contained. (In a throwaway line, William states that Snow White herself is "not well" enough to join the adventure.) Eric, along with some dwarves, goes to find the mirror to keep it out of Freya's hands...and finds that Sara might not be quite so dead as he thought.
Snow White was a dark, stylish, compelling but not entirely serious film, emphasizing the shadowy, frightening aspects inherent in its fairy tale source. The Huntsman is a much more generic fantasy story that throws fairy tale elements into the mix in a weak attempt to connect it to the previous film. It's ridiculous where the first was merely, self-knowingly campy, and it lacks the proper narrative weight to sell that ridiculousness properly. In fact, the film stumbles almost immediately out of the gate when it focuses on the earlier years of Ravenna and Freya because the events depicted almost completely contradict the history established in Snow White. Ravenna suddenly has a sister, and her brother -- whose relationship with Ravenna was a major plot point in the first film -- is never mentioned. The source of her magical powers is similarly changed without explanation, and Freya's magic comes off as less sorcery than it does an X-Man's genetic mutation. The Magic Mirror is changed from a simple divinatory tool to a seemingly all-powerful, high-encumberance One Ring of Sauron, the kind of shiny, bulky, magic MacGuffin that a cruel Dungeon Master would throw at his players just to see how they would cart it out of the dungeon.
In fact, a great deal of the film comes off as a Dungeons and Dragons module, albeit an above-average one. The plot is never more than "stop the villain from obtaining the magic item", and the story beats are imminently predictable to anybody with even an ounce of genre awareness. That isn't to say it isn't occasionally fun and exciting, but it also feels bereft of consequence and resists anything but a surface reading of its contents. A big part of that is the weak, pallid script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. Spiliotopoulos is mostly known for writing the scripts to straight-to-video sequels for Disney animated films, while Mazin has mostly done raunchy, poorly-received comedies. It's no surprise, then, that the narrative constructed by the two of them fails to justify its existence as a continuation of an existing property and that the humorous moments are often much less funny than they were meant to be. Similarly, the film is handicapped by first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who was head of special effects on the previous film. To be sure, the visual effect sequences are stunning, but Nicolas-Troyan couldn't frame a decent action sequence if his life depended on it, and he lacks the striking visual style of previous director Rupert Sanders.
The cast is a mixed bag, as well, and as a whole don't do much to elevate the film beyond their own individual contributions. Charlize Theron is still the best wicked queen money can buy, even if she's slightly campier here than she was in the first film. She still exudes tremendous amounts of confidence and menace, but that's tempered a little by a sinister playfulness that comes across in subtle shading of line deliveries and body language. Emily Blunt can't match Theron's grandiosity, but she effectively plays Freya as a woman who's been so emotionally traumatized that she feels she has no choice but to make the world suffer along with her. She fully commits to the role, and like the ice magic at Freya's command, she has a much cooler, calmer take on the wicked queen archetype. Blunt and Theron play very well off of each other, as would be expected of two actresses of their caliber, which makes it a shame that after the prologue it takes at least another hour for Ravenna to reappear.
It's also a shame the heroes can't always rise to the occasion, however. Chris Hemsworth is just fine in the role, but its a largely anonymous part, and he doesn't do anything to make it his own or bring color to it beyond a ridiculously thick and inexplicable Scottish accent. Similarly, Jessica Chastain doesn't seem at all invested in her role, and she seems slightly embarrassed to be there. That may be due to the fact that she was contractually obligated to star in the film after she signed on for Crimson Peak (where she was much more dynamic and powerful). If Hemsworth's accent is too over-pronounced, Chastian doesn't even seem to care if hers is consistent at all. To be fair to her, though, she handles the action sequences quite well, and she has a decent amount of chemistry with Hemsworth, even though it never reaches a point of true or organic believability. The most consistent performers, to be honest, are the dwarves, led by Nick Frost's Nion (the only returning dwarf actor) and Sheridan Smith's Bronwyn, who's far and away the film's breakout character. A feisty, no-nonsense female dwarven thief, Smith clearly relishes the chance to play the part, and she's effortlessly charming and humorous. She also seems to be the only female character whosr dramatic arc wasn't kick-started after a man broke her heart or otherwise mistreated her, which may be why she seems like such a breath of fresh air when she's on screen.
There's little in The Huntsman to warrant its creation as a continuation of Snow White. It ignores or rewrites so much of that film's story that it almost feels like it's set in an entirely separate universe, retrofitted to grab a little bit of name recognition to boost its opening weekend sales. No matter how hard it tries, the film simply can't shake off the fact that it feels like fan fiction writ large, where the author ignores what they don't like about the existing property and adds their own touches left and right without consideration for continuity or balance. It's impressive landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and superb special effects can't boost the shaky, thin narrative, and it feels like a shadow of its more intriguing and well-developed predecessor. Love may conquer all, as we're constantly reminded througout the film, but sometimes it has a very, very uphill battle.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C