Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: "The Huntsman: Winter's War"

And here arrives Hollywood's most unlikely, unanticipated sequel.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" was an execrable piece of garbage, mindless churning of mythology with a heavy ladling of flashy CGI sauce. But it conjured up a cauldron full of money -- nearly $400 million. So a follow-up became inevitable.

Then star Kristen Stewart was revealed to have dallied with the very married first-time director. Both were promptly given the boot. So how to make a Snow White sequel without Snow White, and give the (unnecessary) male sidekick the spotlight?

Apparently, you give the special effects supervisor from the last film, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, his own rookie shot in the director's chair, order up a script from a pair of journeymen screenwriters (Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin) and put the whole thing on a hurry-up production schedule of 12 months from start of shooting to release -- extraordinarily short for a big-budget spectacle with lots of computerized imagery.

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right?

Here's the funny thing: "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is actually an improvement on the original. Which isn't to say it's a great film, or even a good one. But it's a breezily entertaining piece of escapist claptrap, breathed to life by some fine actors who make a brave go at some awkward dialogue and plotting.

And Emily Blunt shines as Freya, the ice queen and sister to Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who was undone by Snow White. In an affecting opening sequence set years before the first movie, we witness her tragedy and transformation into a withdrawn, super-powered mistress who steals children and turns them into her army of huntsmen to conquer all the lands of the north.

This was how Eric, aka The Huntsman, came to be. He rebelled against Freya's edict on showing love by falling for Sara (Jessica Chastain), another unwilling recruit. They were punished severely and separated, apparently by death, though I'm not giving anything away in saying that Sara shows up alive and well -- and mightily P.O.'d -- about a third of the way through.

She blames Eric for abandoning her, but they've got bigger issues to tackle. Namely, that the Magic Mirror has been stolen after giving off all sorts of Evil Warning emanations. Freya wants it for herself as its magic would make her unstoppable, so the huntscouple are on the case.

Tagging along are a pair of dwarves, sweetly dim Nion (Nick Frost) from the last movie and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon), a cross bean-counting sort. They're coming with because... actually, I'm not sure why they're there. Or why a pair of female dwarf thieves (Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) are soon added to the troupe, with obvious smoochy possibilities.

Love conquers all, I guess. Even dangerously thin plots.

The CGI is quite good, though Freya's frost attacks are too clearly inspired by Elsa's from "Frozen." The molten gold effect of the mirror's magic is revived, with a twist.

The action scenes are rather discombobulated, with a lot of needless parkour-style jumps and flips. And there's an abundance of "shaky cam" situated too close to the action to make sense of anything -- the hallmark of filmmakers who don't know how to stage properly.

Hemsworth's character is still a sneering jerk whose ability doesn't match up to his attitude. Given his grim upbringing in Conan-style martial slavery, you'd think he'd be a bit darker. So Chastain's Sara supplies the gloom aplenty.

There really wasn't any reason for this sequel to be made. It's a slapdash affair, using special effects trickery to wallpaper over a story made up of spare parts. But I'd rather watch it 10 times in a row than the first movie again.

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