Perhaps this fantasy film would have scored a bigger gross last weekend if someone had thought to title it Two Acclaimed Thespians Compete to See Who Makes the Best Evil Queen. Perhaps not. The fact remains, that line sums up almost everything that's not negligible about this unnecessary prequel-cum-sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).
The first film rode the trend of fairy-tale retellings to profit, with Kristen Stewart playing the title character as an ingénue eager to learn to kick evil-stepmother ass. Assisting her was Eric (Chris Hemsworth), the Huntsman sent by evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) to murder the new Fairest of Them All.
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who was the first film's visual effects supervisor, The Huntsman banishes Snow White from the screen. Indeed, it banishes ingénues altogether. That's no loss, but making Hemsworth's stolidly valiant character the protagonist was a more questionable decision.
The ungainly script takes us back in time to reveal that Queen Ravenna has a kid sister named Freya (Emily Blunt) who renounced love following a personal tragedy. Now she rules the north as a fearsome snow queen, ripping children from their parents to turn them into merciless soldiers called Huntsmen. Expelled from Freya's ranks for the crime of falling in love with a fellow soldier, Sara (Jessica Chastain), Eric grieves her loss, even as he accepts a new quest to locate the defeated Ravenna's Magic Mirror. And Freya is still out there, plotting to overturn Snow White's victory.
If that sounds like a convoluted effort to splice Frozen DNA into the Snow White legend, it is. (Technically, the DNA comes from Hans Christian Andersen, whose "The Snow Queen" inspired both Freya and the Disney film.) Skipping around in time, tone and genre, from a sisterly soap opera to an uninspiring fantasy quest and back, The Huntsman might generously be described as unfocused.
Eric's four Dwarf companions (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach) supply welcome silliness inflected by the rhythms of British comedy. But no amount of affable eye twinkling from Hemsworth will make his character interesting.
Lucky thing, then, that the movie actually belongs to the histrionics contest between Blunt and Theron (with Chastain also making a respectable showing). When the evil queens face off, each clad in a fantastical gown in signature colors, wearing signature eye makeup and wielding signature magic, the movie rises to the level of iconic absurdity. It's Krystle versus Alexis on "Dynasty," with CGI.
The production design reinforces that trippiness: Freya's stronghold looks like a ski lodge from a vintage James Bond flick, and a fairy realm features mossy snakes and hedgehogs with the fluttering skin of butterflies. While the film may lurch from plot point to plot point, it's fairly fun to look at and reasonably self-aware about its lack of raison d'être.
The Huntsman is a miscalculated fantasy-film anomaly; nominally about a dude, it's actually a playground for three glamorous, mature women at the height of their powers. Given the young female target audience for this genre, the real anomaly isn't that Hemsworth has little to do besides swing a sword; it's the absence of an ingénue with a relatable coming-of-age arc. That could, perhaps, be the secret of the film's box-office failure, but it's a win for viewers looking to watch some more seasoned hamming.
Blunt, Theron and Chastain take their archetypal roles seriously, playing them with way more conviction than they deserve. They won't get any Oscar nominations for this flop, but you don't want to get in their way when they vie for the title of Scariest of Them All.