“Snow White and the Huntsman,” the 2012 fantasy-adventure starring Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth in the title roles, was a bit like this year’s box-office hit “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Nobody really liked it, but everybody saw it anyway. Does that make “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” one of this year’s most anticipated sequels, or one of the least?
At any rate, here it is — it’s technically a prequel — and it’s an improvement over the first film. (Is that a surprise, or is that not saying much? So many questions.) “The Huntsman” tells a new story tethered to an old fairy tale that was tweaked to begin with, which means this overstuffed movie constantly struggles to make any thematic or narrative sense. That it even barely succeeds is impressive.
There’s enough happening in “The Huntsman” to sustain several movies. In addition to the familiar evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, hamming it up beautifully), there is her emotionally wounded sister, the Ice Queen Freya (a very good Emily Blunt). Freya’s army of Huntsmen obey a single law: “Do not love!” Ah, but the law is broken by young Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Flash forward seven years, and the banished Eric undertakes a noble task: To find Ravenna’s stolen mirror.
Wait, what? When? Why? Pay no attention to the screenwriters behind the curtain! Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin were hired to thread all these elements together, a futile task they perform heroically. Their distractions include four double-dating dwarves (Nick Frost and Sheridan Smith are the standouts), a menacing Goblin king and many opportunities for Hemsworth to work his charm and for Chastain to show her physical prowess.
When the cracks in this movie show, which is often, the gorgeous special effects serve as glue. Debut director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is an Oscar-nominated effects man who worked on “Snow White,” and he may have learned from that experience to keep the pacing quick and to lighten up on the Goth-rock attitude. Overall, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” feels like a movie that didn’t need making, but at least it justifies it existence.