Be warned: The movie you're promised in "The Huntsman: Winter's War"s marketing is not the one you'll get.
This follow-up to 2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman" is less prequel and more sequel, with only its first act occurring before the pale princess' tale. Stranger still, the posters and trailers focus fiercely on the stylish sister queens, Charlize Theron returning as the mirror-loving Ravenna and Emily Blunt joining in as the frigid Freya. Yet the film, as its title suggest, centers firmly on Chris Hemsworth's warrior. Surprises on this level might be jarring but not necessarily unwelcome. Sadly, however, this is more fractured fairy tale than satisfying epic.
"The Huntsman: Winter's War" begins decades before its predecessor, with Ravenna urging her pregnant younger sister to ignore the lure of love and tap into her magical powers. Then tragedy transforms Freya from a cheerful lover to a heartless conqueror, or as the persistent narrator explains, "If she could not raise a child, then in its place she would raise an army" of child soldiers. Among these are Eric and Sara, who are warned that love is outlawed in the land of the ice queen. But when they grow to be Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, lust and romance are inevitable. And they will pay for it.
Awkwardly sidestepping the elephant in the room of Kristen Stewart's omission, we shuffle past the events of "Snow White and the Huntsman" to a time where Ravenna is dead, Freya is ruling over the north with an iron fist and fabulous wardrobe of metallic brocades, and the magical mirror has gone missing. Eric teams up with Sara and a motley crew of dwarves (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach) to retrieve it. Along the way they incur the wrath of greedy goblins, wrathful warriors and both wicked queens.
Bookended by acts that feel divorced from its middle, "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is a strange beast. The opening and climax are much of what you see in the trailers, with Theron and Blunt trapped in an extended perfume commercial full of glamorous garb, urgent whispers and much posing. But the plot gives them very little to do, and so they deliver cartoonish caricatures of tired villainess stereotypes, the vain bitch and the heartbroken spinster. Despite a campaign that sells hard to women, "Huntsman" presents its female characters as devoted to one regressive lesson: Without the love of a husband and/or children, women are monsters.
Regrettably, despite some thrilling fight sequences and a lip-service speech about empowerment, Chastain's "strong female character" (read: physically strong, emotionally simple) falls into this pitiable cliche too. Only Sheridan Smith's dwarf Mrs. Bromwym nearly escapes. Introduced as a clever mercenary and trapper, she joins Eric's quest because of loot and then loyalty, not romance or romance-turned-sour vengeance. (She does take a moment to hit on him. After all, he does look like Chris Hemsworth.) But then in her last moment on screen, Mrs. Bromwym must also surrender to the tedious trope, making out with her male foil (Brydon), although the two never shared an ounce of chemistry or apparent attraction.
But again, this -- despite having mostly female leads -- isn't a movie about them, really. They're just the bookends, obstacles and marketing material. The middle bit is Eric, saving the day and winning back the heart of his Sara. Hemsworth is winsome whether he's bantering with Chastain or pitching himself off mountainsides. His goofy grin and easy affability remind me of Heath Ledger circa "A Knight's Tale," and I'm not mad at that. As we've seen in his Thor turns, Hemsworth is at his best when he gets to play a gallant galoot. And his playfulness vastly improves this franchise begat by a dour and desaturated drama. It's just a shame "Huntsman" has no faith that his story can be carried by him. Instead, it's divided between his spirited adventure and the steely royal vogue-fest.
Apparently, Hollywood still struggles with what to do with female characters. If "The Huntsman: Winter's War's" director (Cedric Nicolas-Troyan) or screenwriters (Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin) bothered to give Ravenna and Freya the same depth and complexity they afford Eric, then the elegant queens would be more than gorgeous anchors, dragging down the film's fantastical fun. Still, there are moments here to relish.
Chastain is a force to be reckoned with in her battle scenes, and makes plenty of heat in her love scenes with Hemsworth. Aside from some sparks of diva campiness, Theron and Blunt are a bit of a bore in their performances. However, their costumes by Colleen Atwood are deadly dazzling, often more so than their magic-flinging fight scenes. But for me, the real standout of this fairy tale was its most unexpected adventurer.
English actress Sheridan Smith is an unrepentant scene-stealer, bringing scads of attitude to the battlefield with smirks, winks, and a mouth as big as her lust for life. ("I expect you to stand there and look ugly, and not much else!") We never get to know too much about Mrs. Bromwyn, but Smith imbues her role with such charisma and verve that I would have happily followed this spunky dwarf instead of either of the powerful queens or wounded warriors. Hers was a character that felt fresh, fun and full of possibilities. But instead, "The Huntsman: Winter's War" bogs itself down with stale archetypes, predictable tropes, and of course the requisite tease of another sequel.
"The Huntsman: Winter's War" opens Friday.