As sequels go, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a strange beast. Its 2012 predecessor, Snow White and the Huntsman was successful, more than doubling its production budget at the box-office. However, neither the director of the first film, Rupert Sanders, nor its female lead Kristen Stewart have returned for the follow-up.
Now its other star Chris Hemsworth is back as Eric the Huntsman for this new installment, which is part prequel, part sequel, woven around the original’s reimagining of the familiar Snow White story.
As well as Chris, Charlize Theron reprises her scenery chewing role as the evil Queen Ravenna in a new tale sprinkled with an array of fresh fantasy characters, some of whom do look to have wandered in from the set of Game of Thrones.
In its opening scenes we are introduced to Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s innocent sister who upon having her heart broken, literally turns into an Ice Queen. Determined not to allow others to have their dreams smashed as hers were, she kidnaps children and turns them into cold-hearted ‘Huntsmen’ prepared to lay waste to any army opposing the expansion of her ice covered kingdom.
The film’s opening act is a strong, dark and emotionally arresting one, as we learn of Eric’s past growing up with and falling for Sara (Jessica Chastain) in Queen Freya’s castle. Their love, forbidden by their cold-hearted and fingered ruler, is torn apart. After Eric is cast out and left for dead by Freya, we skip past the events of the first film before he is sought out by Snow White’s dwarf henchmen Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) to help them on a quest for the magical mirror Snow White aficionados know is not your average bathroom ornament.
Eschewing the ‘dark reimagining’ style present in Winter’s War’s opening, what follows is an enjoyable throwback of a fantasy adventure. The actors are allowed to enjoy themselves in a way which was commonplace in 1980s fantasies like Labyrinth or The Princess Bride but which now seems to have fallen out of fashion.
The relationship between Brydon and Frost’s dwarves and their female counterparts, played by Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith, provide strong comic relief as Smith in particular has a habit of stealing every scene she’s in. Hemsworth is also clearly having fun, with his winning smile and zealous enthusiasm almost making up for the curse of an accent which isn’t so much wandering as travelling on its gap year.
That’s not to say The Huntsman: Winter’s War is without problems. The pacing feels uneven, and there’s a sense the film has been stitched together from several plot ideas which don’t entirely complement each other. Its dark opening and finale doesn’t particularly match with its more jocular moments, and its main double-act, Chastain and Hemsworth, occasionally struggle to decide whether they’re playing their roles for slapstick laughs or dramatic tension. Most obvious of all is Stewart’s absence as Snow White. With one of its principal characters off screen and only talked about, what we are left with in some ways is a distorted reflection showing only part of the whole story.
As a result, when we get to the special effects laden finale it does feel a little as if the action has been halted for reasons of expediency rather than director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan being allowed to fully explore the extent of its lovingly rendered fantasy world. That said, although Winter’s War feels a bit incomplete and inconsistent, it’s never a boring experience. The big names deliver generally strong performances, with Blunt an intriguingly fragile villain and Theron indulging herself in psychopathic sorcery, while its sense of fun carries us through its pacing troubles.