Was anyone on Earth clamoring for a dark-fantasy prequel/sequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman? Or a Snow White movie without Snow White? The Huntsman: Winter's War is here to appease all twelve of those people, providing both an origin story for some ancillary fairy-tale characters and a continuation of the plot of Snow White and the Huntsman.
The prequel elements of The Huntsman kick off by introducing Freya (Emily Blunt), the (initially) kindhearted sister of the original film's villain, the powerful Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Freya is in love with, and carrying the baby of, a duke who's engaged to another woman. After the child is born, he promises to run away with her and their newborn daughter -- but instead, he decides to burn the baby alive in her crib to free himself from any sense of obligation. Freya's immense grief causes her to manifest superpowers that allow her to control frost and the cold, and she uses them to vanquish her two-timing beau and become the "Ice Queen." She leaves Ravenna's kingdom and heads north to create her own empire; once there, she kidnaps a bunch of kids, trains them to become a ruthless army of Huntsmen, and outlaws love in her realm. Fast-forward several years: Eric (played once again by Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are the leaders of Freya's army and secret lovers. They plan to escape their queen's ice lair to start a new life together, but their plan is foiled by Freya -- Sara is seemingly murdered while Eric is beaten and banished back to Snow White's stomping grounds.
The narrative then jumps ahead another seven years to reach the part of the story that's a sequel to the events of Snow White and the Huntsman: Eric is now a mercenary recruited to find the all-powerful and dangerous magic mirror, which was cast out of the kingdom by Snow White, before it falls into Freya's hands. Meanwhile, Sara obviously isn't dead, but has become a hardened warrior convinced by Freya (via icy sleight of hand) that Eric left her behind to die. She begrudgingly joins her former lover on his quest for the magic mirror (does she have an ulterior motive?), as do a few wisecracking dwarfs on horseback. The group run into some goblins and eventually Freya's army, which sets up an excruciating final act in which the thought-to-be-dead Ravenna returns.
Winter's War reeks of script rewrites and wasted millions after the departure of star Kristen Stewart forced Universal to tie themselves in knots trying to think of a follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman. First-time feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan aims to expand on the mythology of the original movie, but this fairy tale is devoid of anything worth investing in. Screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin throw a great deal of subplots, humor, and swordplay at the wall to see what will stick, but the audience's response is likely to be: not much. The world that Nicolas-Troyan has created, while fleetingly nice to look at, is a third-rate Middle Earth with none of the appeal of the franchises it wishes to imitate.
Even the dexterous A-list cast can't save the day. The steely-eyed Blunt and the seductive Theron light up their scenes, but the lack of chemistry between Chastain and Hemsworth sinks the simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped plot, and the latter's lightweight portrayal of Eric is at polar odds with the self-seriousness of the other leads. The dwarfs, all regular-sized actors with their faces cut-and-pasted onto miniature bodies, exist just to be punch lines. An uncredited Liam Neeson uses his particular set of skills to try to fill in the cavernous gaps in the story via narration, but it's no use. The vertigo-inducing fight scenes and overreliance on CGI (at one point Ravenna possesses the ability to sprout sharpened tentacles) are just the...icing...on the cake. It's Frozen by way of Game of Thrones, but with sugary dialogue and inept storytelling. Lacking a reason to exist, or even a firm grasp on which character's tale it's telling, Winter's War is dead on arrival.