The Huntsman: Winter's War sees Chris Hemsworth step to the forefront of this franchise and do battle with the Ice Queen and her sister. It's like Frozen, but with 100% more hunk.
Remember Snow White and the Huntsman? Yeah, me neither. Thankfully, Universal Studios have decided to remind of its existence by bestowing the film with a prequel/sequel that focuses almost entirely on the "and the Huntsman" part of the first film. Returning the fray is Chris Hemsworth as the titular Huntsman, along with the villainous Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Set both before and after the events of the first film, Winter's War sees Erik the Huntsman team up with fellow axe-swinging warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain) to bring an end to the reign of Queen Freya of the North (Emily Blunt) and her sister Ravenna.
Their brief love story is interrupted by yet another awkward time jump that skips over the events of Snow White and the Huntsman before the story picks up again, this time with Erik and Sara having been separated for over 7 years (the film also skips over any explanation for why Blunt and Theron haven't aged 30 years, but Hemsworth and Chastain have? Magic would be my guess, but still - it's really lazy).
The film also fails to navigate the big white elephant in the room - the absence of Snow White. With Kristen Stewart being awkwardly strong-armed out of the film, incoming director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan wrangles with key story elements that might concern her by simply waving away her importance - for example, we only see Snow White from behind or through recycled footage and only mentioned occasionally in dialogue. It's a laughable attempt to be honest and, I can't believe I'm saying this, but the film would've been better off had Kristen Stewart actually been in it*.
Anchoring the film is Hemsworth's assured lead performance as the burly woodsman. He still can't wrap his mouth around the accent (I think he's aiming for Scottish?), but his charming grin and dexterous axe-swinging arms make up for this somewhat. Even though their love is conveyed through awkward fits and bursts, his relationship with Chastain is another highlight. They sure do make for a gorgeous couple and share a warm and cheeky charisma that should be enough to make this film a winner.
Except, it's not. Winter's War also concerns itself with a plethora of unfunny and annoying side characters that bumble and gurn their way through most of the middle act. Tagging along for the ride is a quartet of dwarves lead by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon. They're intended as harmless comic relief, but none of their wisecracks landed for me and they just got on my nerves.
Also, the trailer promises lots of Theron and Blunt - there isn't a lot of either. Both are a lot of fun while it lasts, chewing every inch of scenery they can sink their teeth into. But they're both underutilized, especially Theron - her return is relegated to the third act and feels a little forced in a narrative sense.
Lastly, the VFX are pretty shocking at times. Whether it's hulking goblins, sheer ice walls or sprawling vistas, very little in Winter's War looks tangible. The action scenes are blighted by this rushed and ugly CGI work, as well as some choppy editing.
I really wanted to like this film, I really did - I mean, just look at that cast! Has there ever been a more attractive cast of both men and ladies ever assembled? Not just Theron, but Blunt and Chastain as well! I didn't even mention that Sam Claflin or Sophie Cookson are in this film too! There's even a scene where Emily Blunt rides atop a giant ice wolf/bear thing! Alas, Winter's War struggles purely because it doesn't have the story to support this talented and charming ensemble.
The Verdict: 5.5/10
An early contender for the most unnecessary sequel to grace our screens this year, Winter's War wastes a brilliant cast on a clunky story that ultimately goes nowhere. Hemsworth and Chastain may be charming, but no amount of steamy smooches in rock spas can save this film from being forgotten.
*Note: Sorry, this is pretty cheap shot. She's actually not that bad anymore. If you don't believe me, watch Clouds of Sils Maria or American Ultra where she absolutely kills it.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is in cinemas across Australia now.