Full to the brim with a star-studded cast, The Huntsman: Winter's War sees Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron reprising their roles from 2012's Snow White And The Huntsman, joined by Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain and Sicario's Emily Blunt.
Part-prequel, part-sequel, the film focuses on Theron's Queen Ravenna and her descent into evil, as she pursues her dream of staying the fairest in all the land. This time, we see her go up against her equally powerful sister Freya, who threatens to steal her crown and avenge a family tragedy; an event which had Freya flee the kingdom and in her grief-stricken anger raise an army trained in not only the art of combat but closed off to the 'weakness' of love too. Not because it is in their nature however, but because Freya forbids her warriors – her huntsman – from feeling the emotion.
As you may have guessed, one of those huntsman is Eric (Hemsworth), who grows up to become a skilled soldier who reluctantly helps Freya vanquish many lands long after Ravenna's fall in the first instalment. But after falling for fellow huntsman Sara (Chastain), the two find themselves threatened not only by Freya's rulings but the possibility of Ravenna's return too and the inevitable destruction of Snow White's now peaceful kingdom.
When it was first announced that Universal Pictures was developing a spin-off story to Snow White And The Huntsman, fans of Chris Hemsworth portrayal of Eric the Huntsman from the first film were thrilled at the idea of seeing his previously vague backstory. Then the trailers were released and everyone suddenly got a little confused. So this film isn't about really the Huntsman as the title suggests, but rather Ravenna and her sister who compete against one another to take over the kingdom and Eric just happens to find himself in the middle of their sibling spat?
But fear not those who were keen on knowing Eric's history, this movie does in fact focus on him more than it does the sisters. (A little disappointingly for us however, as Ravenna and Freya are by far the most interesting characters of the whole bunch).
The basic story of Winter's War itself doesn't quite hold up linearly – the idea that Ravenna would become Queen through less than moral methods, only to marry and have to steal the throne from another man for a second time, thus beginning the Snow White fairytale seems unlikely – a fair few forgiveable plot holes can't help but emerge throughout either, that don't have time to be addressed in the movie's relatively short running time.
Why doesn't Blunt's Freya age when Ravenna clearly has to suck the soul out of young women to maintain her untimely good looks? How can Ravenna return when she quite evidently met her end in the first film? (They do attempt to explain that part at least, even if it doesn't really seem feasible). Luckily, the film never concentrates on the original to make you care all that much and by never really distinguishing itself definitively as either a prequel or a follow-up, it can get away with glossing over such details. Just.
They also have the benefit of the film being rooted so heavily in fantasy, so even when things only make sense a little tenuously, it still doesn't really dent the overall cinema-goer's experience as a whole. There are some nice touches in the script too with a few unexpected twists, taking the genre further with the idea of magic and fairy-tale creatures than the first movie ever did.
Unlike the story, the acting is undoubtedly fantastic but then that's a statement not so hard to believe considering that visual effects supervisor-turned-director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan had a Golden Globe-winner, an Oscar nominee, Hollywood's heart-throb and an Oscar winner all at his disposal for this instalment. Getting actors of this calibre on board for such a camped-up, theatrical fantasy is a blessing, and their abilities easily triumph over the sometimes pantomime-like script.
Blunt is perfect in her first overtly-villainous role since she started in the movie business, adding a real emotional backbone to why her Freya is the way she is and creating layers to the character that catapult the audience between feeling sorry for her and being afraid of her power. She stands well against Theron on screen, but in terms of their roles, its interesting to see how they change when around each other rather than not, paving a real dark undertone to the tale. Unfortunately not in all that much, Theron only really rocks up to the party towards the end of the film, but in true Ravenna fashion steals the show just as she did in the first film, with that intense but alluring stare and flawless maniacal laugh.
Additionally, Chastain is a great match for Hemsworth's Eric, both with the physical action and the banter-filled dialogue. The pair's rapport carries most of the film throughout and their playful but passionate relationship is sold by both of them faultlessly. Sadly though, she doesn't quite manage to pin down the Scottish accent as much as she does Hemsworth to the floor during their numerous fight scenes.
Hemsworth himself here feels like the perfect lead, allowing the trio of women around him to shine whilst carrying the story through. His likeability comes through a lot more than in the first film here as fans get to see a warmer side to the grumpy huntsman we saw in the original.
Unlike the original, Winter's War has a lot more laughs, most of which coming from the brilliant dwarf contingent played by Sheridan Smith, Alex Roach, Rob Brydon and reprising his role from the first film, Nick Frost. The jokes are welcome and often cement the movie's dedication to being a more mature interpretation of the term fairy-tale. They get pretty rude, you have been warned.
Fans of the dark fantasy genre will no doubt be pleased with this outing, but whether it's as coherent as the original thanks to its obvious ambition is unclear. Nevertheless, The Huntsman: Winter's War is an entertaining couple of hours that will thrill magic-lovers with its deep-rooted make-believe story and its dazzling, embellished visuals.