Once a fairy tale has covered “happily after after,” is there really more story left to tell? “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” spends a couple of hours trying to convince us that there is, busily going back to the fantasy world of the intriguing 2012 reworking “Snow White & the Huntsman.” And for a decent stretch, Chris Hemsworth and the franchise handlers seem to have hit on another way of putting a dark (and profitable) spin on Disney-princess sparkle. But it doesn’t last, as the story loses direction like forest wanderers relying on a bread-crumb trail.
There’s no Kristen Stewart here, or Stewart’s untimely offscreen drama with paramour and “Snow White” director Rupert Sanders. But Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna is back, as the first act takes us to prequel territory to meet Ravenna’s better adjusted, less vampy sister, Freya (Emily Blunt). Then tragedy strikes, triggering Freya’s own magical, icy powers, and sending her bitterly withdrawing to build a frigid fortress and empire up north. So far, so “Frozen.” (Just as well that the sisters are parted; Blunt’s silvery costume designs are fabulous, but when she’s side by side with Theron, they’re like a Heat Miser-Snow Miser meme.)
As part of her soul-sick grand plan, Freya cruelly conscripts an army of children, raising them not only to fight but to violently reject the very notion of love. Enter the kid soldier who grows up to be Hemsworth’s hunky Eric. And meet Sara (Jessica Chastain), a she-warrior whose archery skills and fiery streak echo Pixar’s “Brave.” Eric and Sara are made for each other, of course — and their ice queen isn’t having any of it.
The story jumps past the first installment here, with a dramatic shift in tone — narratively, visually, just about every way except logically. Hard as the Huntsman has had it to this point, all the dankness surrounding him suddenly evaporates, as director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan very deliberately lightens the established franchise mood.
It actually works well to have Hemsworth’s hero comically palling around with dwarves (cast returnee Nick Frost, plus funny additions Rob Brydon of “The Trip” and Sheridan Smith). But we know the filmmakers eventually need to finish dealing with Blunt — not to mention Chastain and Theron — and a quest for Ravenna’s mirror and other filler isn’t the way. Pretty uninspired material for a dream-teaming of actresses who currently rate among the edgiest of them all.
THE HUNTSMAN: Winter’s War
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 114 minutes. PG-13 (fantasy action violence and some sensuality).
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