Let’s be honest, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” probably shouldn’t exist. Its predecessor, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, didn’t really need to happen, either, but it arrived at a time when fairy tale reboots were just starting to take off, and Snow White movies were something studios were especially enamored with. The grim and gritty take, which saw Kristen Stewart as an armor-clad Snow White, didn’t really take off and certainly didn’t justify a follow-up. But because Universal wanted a franchise, here we are with a film that only brings back Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, no Stewart to be found. And maybe it was Stewart or previous director Rupert Sanders (remember they had a very public romantic entanglement) holding things back because “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is vastly more enjoyable; if “Frozen” and “Lord of the Rings” spawned it would look something like this.
Now, that’s not to say the film is as good as either of those, but as a fantasy adventure full of evil queens, magical ice princesses, dwarves, and heroic acts it’s a lot of fun. Plus there’s something to be said about the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and certainly the star-studded cast knows not to do so. The construction of the story is a little weird at first, though. The “once upon a time” in this case is pre-Snow White and the Huntsman and follows Queen Ravenna as she manipulates and murders her way into power, alongside her mild-mannered sister, Freya (Emily Blunt). Love, as always, is a dangerous thing in this land, and when Freya’s newborn baby is murdered by the man she loves, she goes all Elsa on his ass, and then flees to the North to establish an icy kingdom of her own. There she kidnaps children and raises them to be her army, her Huntsmen, with the law being that love is forbidden.
The finest warriors by her side are Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), who grew up together under Freya’s watchful glare. The two fall in love despite the law, and when Freya finds out she exacts a chilly revenge that drives them apart for years. But nothing is as it seems, and when Eric, plus returning dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), and Gryff (Rob Brydon) are tasked with retrieving the stolen Mirror, his past comes rushing back to haunt him.
What emerges from here is an airy fantasy romance as Hemsworth and Chastain bicker like this was an episode of Moonlighting while battling goblins and their fellow Huntsmen. In terms of tone there is practically no relation between the two films, which nobody will probably complain about. However, it’s still incredibly unforgiving for those just checking out this franchise for the first time. The story begins deep in the past before springing ahead past the prior film and into the present in order to tell a story that doesn’t really include Snow White at all. All that said the humor more than makes up for it. This version of Eric is a goofy lunk, while the comic relief is punched up by scene-stealer Sheridan Smith as feisty, sharp-tongued dwarf, Mrs. Bromwyn. Naturally, Frost and Brydon are great, and so is Chastain although her somber demeanor can be sort of a drag. It’s also a lot of fun to see Blunt vamp it up alongside Theron, although more of the latter would have been even better. Looking at the roster (which also includes Sam Claflin reprising his role as Snow White’s husband), it’s kind of amazing that a random sequel to a forgettable film was able to attract the likes of Chastain and Blunt, but the gravitas they bring to their roles is the reason why you seek out actresses of their caliber.
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, visual effects supervisor on the first film, takes over as director so the strong CGI remains mostly intact. He also keeps a generally fast-forward pace as the Huntsman and his team drive towards a clear cut goal, another thing missing in its predecessor. However, it’s tough to escape the feeling that the whole thing feels sort of arbitrary, the kind of studio-mandated flick that moviegoers claim to hate. The ending is a slog of long-winded diatribes and ice walls, so drowned in special effects that it loses any sense of momentum or emotional connection. It also takes heavy steps to leave the door open for a sequel, which despite “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” being an entertaining romp, simply does not need to be.