Well, I can say one thing for The Huntsman: Winter's War: It has its aesthetic together. Its austere witch queens, buff elite guards, tar magic and ice palaces create a Tumblr-ready surrealist fairy tale. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is primarily a visual effects artist, and it shows.
And it doesn't hurt that all the pretty people you thought were dead in Snow White and the Huntsman — such as Charlize Theron's Ravenna, who died a whole movie ago — come back to life (albeit in Ravenna's case, as a magic mirror). There are so many fake deaths in this movie that I spent most of the big emotional plot twist wondering if Snow White was actually somebody's long-dead daughter. It's as if everything in this movie has been resurrected to make the last movie all over again, only without Kristen Stewart.
Even more confusing, the film is both a prequel and sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. Snow White shows up for a quick exploitation film-style freakout in front of the Magic Mirror, then disappears. The real story then picks up a few decades earlier.
Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are kidnapped as children by Ravenna's sister, Queen Freya (Emily Blunt). Freya no longer believes in love because her former lover betrayed her and burned their illegitimate daughter alive. Freya has many children now; she slaughters their parents to free the kids from decades of enslavement to love and instead turns them into child soldiers. She's prone to freezing people with her ice magic and saying things like "love is a lie." Despite Freya's conditioning, Eric and Sara fall in love and try to elope. It doesn't go well.
And then seven years after their failed escape, Snow White is on the throne, the Magic Mirror mysteriously disappears and Eric gets stuck saving the kingdom with an assist from two mildly funny dwarf sidekicks. What follows is part action film, part love story and all awkward flirtation.
It's really not a terrible film, even though it never quite succeeds in selling its ham-fisted "love conquers all" message. In fact, Huntsman only made me believe that line for about 30 seconds, when the dwarves hilariously fall in love over their shared experience of ... getting thirsty. That moment transcends the rest of the material and somehow feels more genuine than the other 182 minutes put together.
And that's the problem with Huntsman. The best parts feel fake, but charming (the people, the magic, the creatures). The worst parts just feel fake (the script, the themes, the plot). It's not boring, but it's not exhilarating. It occupies an enjoyable middle ground as a kinda-but-not-really dark version of Frozen. It's unwilling to commit to a truly nasty scary-tale landscape, but it's equally unwilling to embrace the mush without foot-dragging and sarcasm. The Huntsman: Winter War is cynical about its fairy-tale nature, even as it goes through the fairy-tale motions. I found myself wishing for a more sincere "happily ever after."