The year’s Most Unwarranted Sequel might be “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” but “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” runs a close second.
Somehow, a follow-up to “Snow White and the Huntsman” got greenlit, despite the 2012 fantasy not making back its budget at the domestic box office. And the sequel doesn’t even include the original’s top-billed star, Kristen Stewart, whose character was allegedly cut following a scandal caused by her affair with that film’s director.
But here’s “Winter’s War” shoved into the early-summer lineup anyway. The earnest adventure “that comes before happily ever after” capitalizes on star power and some persuasive CGI. It also piggybacks on the creative output of other beloved movies.
Whereas “Snow White and the Huntsman” crafted its grim story from public domain fairy tales, the latest installment borrows its ice-powered sister plotline from “Frozen.” Throw in a female archer a la “The Hunger Games” and a villain with the metal morphing abilities of the T-1000 in “Terminator 2.” Then arrange a quest involving a magic mirror that combines the powers of the ruby slippers with the One Ring to rule them all … and it’s off to see the wizardry of digital effects!
Reliable charmer Chris Hemsworth (aka thunder god Thor) portrays Eric, introduced in a prologue in which the Huntsmen are revealed as kidnapped children raised to be faithful soldiers to Queen Freya (a subtle Emily Blunt). Freya, sister to the first flick’s evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), endured the cold sting of romantic betrayal in her youth. She has since outlawed love in her kingdom.
This doesn’t stop Eric from romancing fellow Huntswoman Sara (Jessica Chastain). The relationship can’t survive the queen’s jealousy, and Eric barely escapes into a bordering forest.
But that’s just the initial half-hour of all-narrated exposition, which feels like a rules refresher instead of actual gameplay.
Finally, the real plot begins: Eric teams with dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) and brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) for a creature-fraught expedition to retrieve the missing mirror before it falls into Freya’s frosty grip.
Rookie director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan earned an Oscar nomination as a visual effects supervisor on the first “Huntsman.” His specialty lies with imagery, whether it’s the furry snakes and moss-covered tortoises of a wooded sanctuary or the gold-plated goblins that roam the hills. His talents enliven a rousing end battle that showcases all manner of grotesque sorcery (but with ice statue victims lifted straight out of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” of course).
He’s also competent at handling the cast, particularly the Oscar-caliber actresses he leans on. Chastain displays more butt-kickery than the usual scientist-type roles “The Martian” star typically favors. Overall, the picture offers stronger female leads than standard multiplex fare.
Yet it’s the nagging details that keep distracting from the story’s pull. Why have the Australian Hemsworth and American Chastain speak in Scottish accents while the rest of the cast opts for feudal English? How come the medieval fight scenes resemble those in a modern kung fu movie? Why does the magic mirror still look like a gong at a Rush concert?
All these questions wouldn’t be so pesky if the film exhibited more novelty. It’s simply too easy to spot the DNA from other, better pictures.
“Winter’s War” opens with the line “What does a mirror show you?”
With each scene, the answer becomes clearer: “Stuff you’ve already seen.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:54.