So, is “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” a prequel or a sequel? In truth, it’s a bit of both, forming a wraparound tale which actually turns the original film into the dull middle chapter of a decent fantasy trilogy.
“Winter’s War” takes us back to the beginnings of the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and we see her power and kingdom grow while her little sister Freya (Emily Blunt) yearns for a normal life of a loving family. But when Freya has a child tragedy strikes, awakening Freya’s magic and turning her into the Ice Queen. Fleeing to the north, Freya begins abducting children to save them from a life of love and turn them into her army of Huntsmen to conquer further territories. Flash forward to the ‘present day’, set after the events of “Snow White And The Huntsman” and Snow White has fallen ill, affected by the presence of Ravenna’s mirror. Sensing her chance to gain even more power, Freya sends her forces to recover the mirror and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is dispatched to find it before she does.
There are a few narrative kinks in this pre/sequel which are difficult to overlook. Kristen Stewart’s absence causes the film a few moments of awkwardness but the benefits of her exclusion far outweigh the drawbacks so you can forgive them that. Less comfortable is the absence of mention or acknowledgement of Ravenna’s brother who was such a prominent part of “Snow White And The Huntsman”. It makes you wonder how many other members of this misbegotten family may be lurking out there.
However, if you can let go of the moody, po-faced portentousness of the original (as this film works very, very hard to do), there’s a lot of fun to be had with this breezy sword and sorcery road trip that has far more in common with the likes of “Krull” and “Willow” than current Fantasy flavour of the month “Game Of Thrones” – and I mean that as a compliment.
The production design by Dominic Watkins is beautiful, especially in the Ice Queen’s palace. There’s even a smirking nod to the “Game Of Thrones” opening titles (albeit via 1978 Superman’s Kryptonian technology) as the Queen plots her next conquest and the sets, both physical and digital are beautiful to look at. They’re complimented at all times by fantastic costume design from Colleen Atwood who provides villain and hero alike with stunning costumes. Everything is captured beautifully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and former visual effects supervisor and debut feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan meaning whatever failings the film may have, it’s never not fun to look at.
The cast are excellent value too with Hemsworth charisma unhindered by Stewart’s drag factor this time round and instead bouncing off the left-of-centre casting of Jessica Chastain. It may seem an odd role for Chastain and – despite it being quite publically a ‘contractual obligation’ – she never phones it in, even if her accent does wander the Celtic landscape somewhat (it’s probably just trying to keep up with Hemsworth ScottIrish brogue). Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach are good fun as new dwarfs alongside returning Nick Frost and Rob Brydon gives a typically Rob Brydon-esque performance as Dwarf Rob Brydon but they’re good company for the Huntsman on his quest. It’s Blunt and Theron who steal the show, though. Blunt’s icy vulnerability and frozen affections are tremendous but there’s probably nobody around at the moment who can do Evil Queen quite as well as Theron. She injects the character with such ruthless malevolence topped off with a complex and fluid physicality that she’s impossible to ignore when she’s on the screen.
A lightweight “Lord Of The Rings” – there are plentiful Peter Jackson-esque ‘hiking’ scenes – featuring a cut price Fellowship of the Mirror, this is still a pretty good fantasy adventure in its own right, better than the film which spawned it with enough pulpy adventure to keep the whole family amused.