By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - So here's a sequel that's also a prequel. But it's not quite an equal.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is the follow-up to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, which came out the same year as Mirror Mirror, which took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the dark material, based on the Grimm Brothers' fairytale.
Snow White and the Huntsman, set in Europe in the Middle Ages, was a solemn action-adventure fantasy with adroit action sequences, visual storytelling of a high order, colorful supporting characters for comic relief, and impressive CGI flourishes that productively served the story.
Nevertheless, style trumped substance by a country mile.
That's also true in The Huntsman: Winter's War, which reaches back to a time before there was a Snow White (who's referenced but unseen), but this installment is in more slavish service to the admittedly slick special visual effects.
Of course, just because effects are special doesn't mean that they're dramatically effective.
In the sequel/prequel, Snow White's power-hungry stepmother-to-be, Queen Ravenna, played by Charlize Theron, betrays her younger sister, Freyda – more bland but equally evil – played by Emily Blunt, freezing her heart.
Shades of Frozen and a reach for that blockbuster's audience, perhaps?
But Freyda escapes to a northern kingdom and forms an army of huntsmen, forbidding affairs of the heart among them because of her own troubled, painful past.
So her best huntsman, Eric, played by Chris Hemsworth, must fight alongside Sara, played by Jessica Chastain, the only woman he has ever loved, while he and Sara, renegades both, try to conceal their forbidden love from Freyda.
Meanwhile, the conflict between the warring sisters escalates as each attempts to conquer the land.
The script by Evan Spillotopoulos and Craig Mazin is for first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who was Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects for Snow White and the Huntsman. It offers a strained, convoluted plot, one that depends more than it should on the exposition being spelled out by voiceover narrator Liam Neeson.
But this remains a special effects-driven production – which should, given the director's background, not be much of a surprise.
And although the array of accents is shaky at best, the balance among the action, romance, fantasy, and humor (the latter compliments of a quartet of squabbling dwarves played by Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, and Alexandra Roach) is for the most part respectively achieved, with Hemsworth a sturdy leading man and Blunt in full command.
Consequently, although the film is quite a distance from triumphant, it's never less than watchable.
So we'll battle 2½ stars out of 4 for the follow-up fantasy, The Huntsman: Winter's War. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, Winter's War is fair, that's all.
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