After Snow White and The Huntsman's star proved not as purely driven as Snow White, Universal's franchise bumps the Huntsman to top billing, then finds other Disney empire ideas to crib.
Desperation reeks in The Huntsman: Winter's War, a follow-up counted upon before Kristen Stewart and her married director Rupert Sanders were discovered having an affair. The fallout made both dispensable, and Chris Hemsworth's hunky Huntsman — basically Thor without a hammer — can carry a movie.
From there, Winter's War is primarily constructed from elements of Disney's Frozen, Pixar's Brave and Marvel's Thor, not to mention the 1937 animated classic always haunting this franchise. It's a dark photocopy, to be sure, with child conscription and abuse at the heart of its plot. A winter war without Snow is bleak.
Someone replacing Sanders named Cedric Nicolas-Troyan delivers a fairy tale for children of Game of Thrones fans, a primer in renaissance festival fashion, syntax and supernatural action. It's a not always unpleasant mosh of fantasy whims, including stick fu, death by chess and a magic mirror resembling a large Zildjian cymbal, or a golden wok.
Winter's War is both sequel and prequel, starting before Snow vanquished Ravenna (Charlize Theron, fierce again). Ravenna's powers are whatever she needs, from shooting out tar tentacles to instant home pregnancy test. The latter gift shows her sister Freya (Emily Blunt) to be expecting.
Meanwhile, children are trained as slave warriors, including a pair we know from freckles and glare will grow up to be Jessica Chastain's Sara and Hemsworth's Eric. She's a flesh-and-blood Merida from Brave, down to the hair color and archery skills, and Freya's power turns out to be same as Elsa in Frozen, hence a war in winter.
Jump ahead several years, Ravenna disappears until the last act and adult Eric and Sara are training young warriors for an increasingly unstable ice queen Freya. "You've done well with the children," she tells Eric, who guiltily glances at his bloodied knuckles. That's after the baby burning.
Long story short, Freya wants the magic mirror to maximize her powers, although she's already good at conjuring ice walls and turning enemies into ice anemones. Eric and Sara battle their way out of Freya's kingdom to beat her to the mirror.
The path is paved with goblins looking like gilded CGI rejects from a Planet of the Apes flick, dwarf sidekicks with familiar heads (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon) digitally glued onto little people bodies and fireballs not singeing a single lock of Hemsworth's luxurious hair. Each time the movie does something right there's something wrong around the corner.
Yet Winter's War isn't tedious. Amiably bad movies seldom are. Theron and Blunt look fabulous doing silly, screechy things in Colleen Atwood's costumes. Chastain makes Sara a formidable match in battle and bed with Eric, who becomes less important as these wonder women converge.
Hemsworth had better watch out. Universal's next desperate move might be dropping the Huntsman part of the title.
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