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The Huntsman Winter's War

D: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan / 114m

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sam Claflin, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu

Once upon a time there were two sisters. One, Ravenna (Theron), lusted for power, and used her dark magic to take over kingdoms and rule them with an iron fist. The other, Freya (Blunt), had yet to find the magic gift she possessed, but Ravenna assured her the day would come when her power would assert itself. And then Freya fell pregnant, and had a baby. But then a tragedy occurred and her baby died in a fire, apparently caused by her baby’s father, her one true love. Her powers exerted themselves then, and Freya’s gift was to be able to control ice in all its forms. She exerted her revenge on her one true love, then left Ravenna’s care to make a kingdom for herself in the North. She became known as the Ice Queen, and she was feared by all.

Her pain found expression in a strange way. She would order the children from the villages in her kingdom to be rounded and trained as warriors for her growing army. All these children had to do was swear allegiance to her and foreswear any notion of love. In return she would give their lives meaning in their service to her. But love will out, and two children grew up to love each other, despite Freya’s law. Eric (Hemsworth) and Sarah (Chastain) made plans to leave Freya’s stronghold and their roles as huntsmen. But Freya learned of their plans and saw to it that they didn’t come to fruition. Eric saw Sarah killed, and he was knocked unconscious and thrown into the river to die.

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But Eric survived. Time passed. Seven years, during which time he helped Snow White rid her kingdom of the villainous Ravenna. But now a new threat is in place. Ravenna’s mirror, a source of very powerful magic, has been stolen, and Eric is tasked with finding it and taking it to a sanctuary where it can be made safe. He agrees to the task, and is joined by two dwarves, Nion (Frost) and Gryff (Brydon). Soon they discover that Freya is trying to find the mirror as well. They seek help from two female dwarves, Mrs Bronwyn (Smith) and Doreena (Roach), and journey into a hidden forest inhabited by goblins to take back the mirror. But once they do they find themselves caught in a trap of Freya’s devising, leading to the mirror’s capture, and only one course of action left to them: to follow the Ice Queen back to her stronghold and destroy her and the mirror once and for all.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) was an unexpected success, trading on Theron’s evil hearted queen and Kristen Stewart’s take on Snow White as a fantasy version of Joan of Arc. It had an impressive budget – $170 million – and made back nearly $400 million at the international box office. A sequel was always on the cards, it was just a matter of when. But here’s the rub: The Huntsman: Winter’s War isn’t just a sequel, it’s also a prequel. In it we see the Huntsman’s back story, his childhood years as a trainee in Freya’s huntsman army and his eventual love affair with Sarah, whom he marries in secret. When she dies, fate spares his life and the movie skims over the events of its predecessor with a single line of narrated dialogue (courtesy of Liam Neeson).

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Then we’re fully in sequel mode, as Sam Claflin’s earnest prince convinces Eric to look for the mirror. And Freya, who has been adding nearby kingdoms to her own over the past seven years, gets wind of the mirror and its magical properties. A race against time, then, to see who reaches the mirror first. Alas, no, not really. Instead, after an eventful and encouraging first half hour, the movie settles down into fantasy adventure mode, with humour provided by Frost and Brydon. Freya’s threat is put on the back burner and Eric is confronted with a figure from his past who provides complications for his quest. It’s all serviceable enough, and despite everyone’s best efforts, all entirely forgettable.

The problem lies both with the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, and Nicolas-Troyan’s direction. The script lumbers from one unconnected scene to the next, straining the audience’s patience thanks to semi-amusing quips and snide remarks courtesy of Brydon, cowardly assertions from Frost, an drab, wearing performance from Chastain, and Hemsworth’s assumption that a big grin can pass for acting when he so desires (sorry, Chris, it doesn’t). Ravenna remains the primary adversary, despite being off screen for two thirds of the movie, and Freya’s delusional take on love and its inability to offer true contentment is recounted so often it’s as if the makers weren’t sure an audience would grasp the idea the first time around.

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But if the movie’s storyline and plotting are a cause for alarm, spare a thought for Nicolas-Troyan, bumped up from second unit director on the first movie, and a poor second choice after Frank Darabont, who was attached to the project for some time before he dropped out. He’s not so bad when it comes to the action sequences, but in between times, when the characters have to display their feelings, or the script calls for another bout of humorous insults (which are pretty much all of Brydon’s lines), his lack of experience shines through. Too many scenes fall flat or fail to make much of an impact, and the cast are left to inject whatever energy they can, but with the script and their director seemingly working against them, it’s an uphill struggle for all of them.

This being a big budget fantasy movie, however, it does score highly for its production design, its costumes, and its special effects (though an encounter with a goblin isn’t as effective as it should be, thanks to its looking like an angry ape with a liking for bling). The ice effects are cleverly done, and there’s a pleasing sense of a real world lurking behind all the CGI, while James Newton Howard contributes a suitably stirring score to help prop things up when it all gets a little too silly (which is most of the middle section). And of course, the makers can’t help themselves at the end, and leave a way open for a further (full-fledged) sequel. But if anyone really cares by that stage, then the movie will have truly worked its magic.

Rating: 5/10 – a superficially appealing prequel/sequel, The Huntsman: Winter’s War isn’t the most memorable of fantasy movies, and chances are, viewers will have forgotten most of its content a short while after seeing it; it’s not a bad movie per se, but then it’s not a good movie either, and sometimes, that’s the worst anyone can say about any movie.