Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Cedrid Nicolas-Troyan

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Rob Brydon, Nick Frost, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sam Claflin, Colin Morgan, Ralph Ineson, Sam Hazeldine, voice of Liam Neeson.

Only three months into the year and 2016 has already given us plenty of unnecessary and mostly inferior sequels. And here is another one!

2012’s Snow White And The Huntsman provided a rather more fanciful and darker take on the familiar fairy tale, reinventing it for the Game Of Thrones and Twilight crowd. But it was a film that was critically panned upon release, and it didn’t really need a sequel. However, having grossed over $400 million at the box office, it seems that we get one anyway. Somewhat surprisingly, The Huntsman: Winter’s War proves to be marginally better than initial expectations would suggest. Kristen Stewart’s titular character of Snow White has (wisely) not returned, instead the character of Eric the huntsman (played again by Chris Hemsworth) steps up to take over the leading role here.

Written by a team of writers that includes Evan Spiliotopoulos (better known for his work on Brett Ratner’s version of Hercules as well as a number of straight to DVD sequels for Disney) and Craig Mazin (better known for his work on comedies like Scary Movie 3 and 4 and the two Hangover sequels, etc), this sequel takes the characters created by Evan Daugherty and places them in a new version of the story. It is also much lighter in tone than the original. The writers have also created a trio of strong female characters here, unusual for a special effects driven blockbuster.

An extended opening sequence, narrated by the distinctive tones of an uncredited Liam Neeson, gives us plenty of backstory to the rivalry between the wicked queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, reprising her role from the first film) and her much more pleasant younger sister Freya (played by Emily Blunt). The cruel and manipulative Ravena is jealous of Freya’s romance and destroys any chance of happiness for Freya. Distraught, the bitter and heart broken Freya retreats to her own ice kingdom in the north where she rules with a cruel demeanour and outlaws any hint of love. “Love is nothing more than a fairy tale,” she hisses. The setting of the ice kingdom will remind many of Disney’s more family friendly Frozen.

Her soldiers regularly raid neighbouring kingdoms to kidnap children who become part of her powerful army. Her favourites though are Eric the hunky huntsman (Hemsworth, reprising his role from the original), and the flame haired ace archer Sara (Jessica Chastain), whose character is something of a cross between Brave‘s Princess Merida and The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen. But when the couple embark on a romance, the callous Freya drives them apart. Eric is banished from the kingdom, believing his beloved Sara dead.

The action then picks up seven years later, after the events of Snow White And The Huntsman. Eric has embarked on a quest to find Ravenna’s magic mirror before it falls into the hands of the ambitious, power hungry Freya, who will become virtually unstoppable if she obtains it. Eric is accompanied on his quest by two dwarves Gryff (Rob Brydon) and Nion (Nick Frost, returning from the first film). The quest seems like a minor variation on the epic journey of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. Eric also reconnects with Sara, and the pair set out to thwart Freya’s plans for domination.

Original director Rupert Sanders was a visual stylist who gave the silly material a slick visual surface. Here he has been replaced by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a former visual effects supervisor making his feature film directorial debut. He worked on two of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films. He also created the special effects for the original film, so he has some understanding of this world and the characters. He certainly creates some impressive visual effects here, particularly with Freya’s ice palace, although the final showdown with Ravenna overdoses on the CGI effects. There are also a couple of well staged action sequences.

Theron returns in a smaller role here as Ravenna, and she brings a chilly malevolence to her scenery chewing performance. Blunt brings a fragile quality to her bitter Freya. Hemsworth handles the physical stuff well, and he has plenty of appeal and charisma and brings swagger and machismo to the role. There’s plenty of chemistry and light hearted banter between Hemsworth and Chastain. However, Chastain would probably have been better suited to the role of the cold Freya, while Blunt would have been better suited to the role of Sara, especially given the physical nature of her work opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi action thriller Edge Of Tomorrow.

Brydon and Frost provide plenty of comic relief as the two dwarves. And Sheridan Smith is enjoyable and great value as the smart mouthed dwarf Mrs Bromwyn.

In the end though, The Huntsman: Winter’s War seems like a mashup of half a dozen other (superior) films, and while it holds the attention for most of the time it never really amounts to much more than a temporary distraction from the real world. But be warned, Neeson’s ponderous narration hints at yet another sequel!



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