“Love is nothing more than a fairytale,” intones Liam Neeson’s gravelly voiceover in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Well, try telling that to Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), last seen helping defeat the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. As fans will recall, Eric had a lost love, Sara. And so with Snow White sidelined – she’s off governing her new kingdom, apparently – in she comes.
Played by Jessica Chastain, Sara isn’t the only newbie to this fairytale franchise. Once upon a time, Ravenna had a sister, Freya (Emily Blunt). The story starts with Freya all sweetness and light until her baby goes up in a puff of smoke and she unleashes her inner anger – an ice storm that’d put Frozen’s Elsa to shame. Retreating to her own ice palace, Freya gathers an army of moppets (including the younger Eric and Sara), training them to be deadly Huntsmen and women.
The embittered Freya lays down the law – “Do not love!” – but Eric and Sara disobey, until their icy Queen discovers their treachery and splits them apart. Still, The Huntsman: Winter’s War isn’t all backstory; flashing forward seven years, we meet Eric again, who runs into the Prince (Sam Claflin), informing him that Snow White is ill and that ‘fairest of them all’ magic mirror has gone missing. Containing the evil essence of Ravenna, the mirror must be found before Freya gets her hands on it.
Eric, meanwhile, teams up with a quartet of dwarves: Nion (returnee Nick Frost); Gryff (Rob Brydon), Doreena (Alexandra Roach) and Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith). Brydon is a hoot (“Have you ever seen a female dwarf? Horrifying!”) but it's Smith who almost steals the show, making eyes at Eric.
Directed by first-timer Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film’s visual effects supervisor, Winter's War thankfully isn't CGI saturated. There's a great-looking Goblin King looks great, while the background details – creatures, fairies, furry snakes and so on – delight. But with a wraparound narrative that never really strikes a balance between past and present, all that axe-flinging, ice-casting action makes a modest impact.
Blunt is credible as Freya, but Hemsworth and Chastain, hampered by their distracting Celtic accents, have minimal chemistry. Thankfully, when Ravenna does return (it’s in the trailer, spoiler-haters), Theron kicks serious ass. But even she can’t save a middling third act where the emotional stakes never really pay off.