Like the cheapest types of candy, there's a hollow center to The Huntsman: Winter's War. Something's missing from this sickly-sweet CGI confection—and crunching down on its hard, shiny surface reveals only jagged, cheek-shredding shrapnel and sticky chemical additives, with nothing more at its core. The sequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman should feel, I don't know, bigger than this. I suppose it helps that no one actually remembers the first movie.
The cast has been expanded from Snow White's three lead roles to Winter's War's four: Charlize Theron's wicked queen Ravenna and Chris Hemsworth's strapping huntsman (his name's Eric! Eric the huntsman) return, with two others replacing Kristen Stewart's absent Snow White—Ravenna's sister Freya (Emily Blunt) and Eric's warrior wife Sara (Jessica Chastain). Instead of seven dwarfs, this one boasts only two (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, humorous glimmers of light in a very dark tunnel), giving one the nagging sense that five separate dwarf-related accidents have taken place off screen.
But the story, set both before and after the first Huntsman, is predictable and deathly dull, and the action sequences, which should be pure escapism, are muddy and nonsensical. The first half plods, with unnecessary narration and clumsy dialogue (partly the work of co-screenwriter Craig Mazin, Ted Cruz's college roommate) explaining how Freya, betrayed by her baby-daddy, becomes an ice queen. She turns two of her trained warriors, Eric and Sara, against each other after they break her one covenant by falling in love.
The movie eventually finds its gear, sort of, when Eric, Sara, and the dwarfs embark on a quest for Ravenna's magic mirror, but by then your brain will have checked out. I suppose we should be grateful for a fantasy action movie in which three out of the four leads are women, each of whom kicks a reasonable amount of ass (the two dwarfs also have dwarf-lady counterparts who are no slouches in the fighting department). We can only hope that Huntsman 3: Eric Slips in the Bathtub takes the next step and dispenses with the men altogether.