Pity the little children who venture out to the movies these days; their cheery fables and simple tales have been turned into dark sagas for young adults. Jungle Book has gone all grown-up, the stories of Snow White and the Snow Queen are rated PG-13, and Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is being billed as the prequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, although it is also, and primarily, a sequel. The first was a baroque retelling of the Snow White myth that rejoiced in a scenery-chewing performance from Charlize Theron as the wicked queen Ravenna. The critics didn't think much of Kristen Stewart's blandly activist Snow White but the box office was solid, and so this brazen retread simply banishes Stewart from the action, while also ditching director Rupert Sanders (who had a notorious on-set affair with Stewart for which she later publicly apologized).
New writers, working from the characters created by Evan Daugherty, spend a tight first act explaining the antecedents of the huntsman who rescued Snow White, but most of the movie follows his adventures seven years later, after Ravenna's death. Knowing a good thing when they see it, the movie's producers bring Theron roaring back from the dead and the script throws in a slightly less evil sister, Freya, played by a gracious if less than fully engaged Emily Blunt.
As the writers turn from Snow White to Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen story (or perhaps Disney's Frozen), a jilted Freya creates perpetual winter in an icy kingdom where she rules over kidnapped children who she trains to become hardened soldiers forbidden to feel love. Of course, one of them is our hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) who predictably falls head over heels for a colleague, the steely archer Sara (Jessica Chastain).
Yes, this is a very crowded place and, although filled with willful women and powered by three female leads, viewers must rely on Hemsworth's winsome huntsman to lead us. Thankfully, he is matched with a woman off whom he can actually raise some sparks in the person of a fiery Chastain – and accompanied by four moderately amusing dwarfs, played by full-sized British character actors, once again made small through digital trickery.
Villainy, now a distractingly two-headed beast, is less satisfactorily presented as Theron's routine grows stale yet still manages to eclipse Blunt in a final scene where director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan loses his previously firm grip on the story and its emotions. Meanwhile, the special effects – walls of ice and rivers of gold – are impressive, but there is nothing here to match Theron's fantastical transformation into a flock of crows in the previous movie.
Unlike the smarter Maleficent, a revisionist Sleeping Beauty created by the same producers, what The Huntsman series lacks is any intriguing psychology. Freya is given the barest veil of a backstory while Ravenna just oozes ribbons of black bile (literally) for her own evil reasons. These women may be strong but they are never deep.