The 2012 summer spectacle Snow White and the Huntsman took a fairy tale and turned it into a fantasy adventure with striking visuals, a muddy Dragonslayer look, welcome weight to matters of life and death, and a feminist snap in letting its heroine fight her own battles. If we absolutely must have fairy tales run through a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones tone, then that movie was the way to do it right. Alas, now it has also been done wrong in The Hunstman: Winter’s War, a combination prequel and sequel that doodles all around its predecessor with extra intrigue, loud noises, and hectic action, but never arrives at a reason to exist. It’s an afterthought looking for box office. Last time the title characters (Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth) teamed up to defeat the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). This time there’s new threats and old threats and new plot that suddenly wraps around the old as if the one we’re given now is the real story that’ll bring it all together. As if.
The story starts with the old cheap ah-but-the-dead-villain-had-a-sibling trick. It introduces us to another evil queen, the original’s sister (Emily Blunt), a nice enough young woman who goes full Ice Queen when her lover turns on her. She retreats way up north into the mountains where she makes herself an Elsa-style frozen fortress, then kidnaps local kids to make an army of child soldiers. One of the kids grows up to be Chris Hemsworth, in love with a fellow soldier (Jessica Chastain) despite attachment being forbidden by their icy master. This comes to a tragic end, of course, so this is an explanation as to why he was a loner and such a good fighter in the last movie. Skipping over the events of that story with a tidy “Seven Years Later,” we pick up the thread as the Ice Queen decides she wants her dead sister’s mirror. I suppose I’ve seen worse attempts to find new conflict where it was previously well resolved the last time, but they aren’t coming to mind.
The shiny gold mirror (of “mirror, mirror on the wall” fame) was left behind when the Evil Queen died. Being a tool of evil, it sits in the castle leaking malevolence – killing wildlife, browning grass, that sort of thing. We hear from a messenger (Sam Claflin in a cameo) that it has poisoned Snow White, leaving her incapacitated for the duration of the runtime. (This is screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin’s best effort at writing out Stewart, who doesn’t return. It stinks of a movie hobbled by contracts, schedules, and other disputes as it bends over backwards pretending that this is a story worth telling.) Snow sent the mirror to be destroyed, but it disappeared. So it is up to the heroic Huntsman and some warrior dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, digitally shrunk) to track it down and stop the Ice Queen from swooping in and destroying everything they accomplished.
The idea of dealing with power vacuums and loose weapons of mass destruction in a fantasy context is interesting, but the movie is too thin and empty to do anything with it. There’s nothing here new, surprising, or interesting. It’s a reworking of the first film’s plot – bad queen must be stopped by band of misfits, the leader of which has a tragic history with her – mixed with action beats – fighting goblins, swirling gobs of magic – we’ve seen in every other fantasy film for decades. Helmed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a visual effects artist making his directorial debut, the thing looks fine and has some fleeting moments of visual interest. I liked a gold-plated Theron, tricky ice walls, tendrils of tar, and a porcelain spy owl, but that’s not much to hang two hours on. This isn’t a particularly rich or novel fantasy world, and it is certainly not enriched by this new experience.
There’s a tremendous cast involved, but they have nothing to work with. Blunt and Theron sell a sniping sisterly chemistry, but of course they have the big goofy camp-adjacent parts decked out in resplendent shimmering gowns and arching eyebrows. The rest of the performers merely fit the tailored leatherwear and look competent swinging old weaponry as the predictable plotting accumulates around them. A passable diversion at best, and thudding boredom at worst, Winter’s War plays like a movie that had to be made before the public forgot about the earlier hit and consequently never figured out what story it wanted to tell or why anyone should care. The irony is that its bland action, routine story beats, and trite love-conquers-all theme is precisely what its predecessor could have been but for the spark of imagination that kept it distinctive. This is the sort of sequel that misses the point of its inspiration entirely.