Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
Alas, not Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s functional prequel-cum-sequel to the 2012 fantasy Snow White And The Huntsman, which promises a yarn “that comes long before happily ever after”.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts jaw-dropping costumes, sets and production design, plus special effects-laden action sequences awash with rampaging goblins and a shape-shifting arch-villainess.
However, all of the slick, digitally rendered beauty cannot disguise uneven performances and a plodding script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, which cynically melds Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and the Brothers Grimm to woo audiences, who hanker for a live-action version of Frozen.
Kristen Stewart is noticeably absent as Snow White, who appears fleetingly in flashback, but Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron reprise their roles as swaggering hero and scheming megalomaniac, on a collision course with destiny.
If risible regional accents were a crime punishable under UK law, Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain would be sentenced to life without parole.
Her gung-ho attempts at a Scottish burr catalyse several moments of unintentional hilarity when her acrobatic warrior isn’t somersaulting through breathlessly orchestrated fight sequences.
Scheming Queen Ravenna (Theron) rules over her realm in the south with a steely glare, aided by the shape-shifting magic mirror.
Her kind-hearted younger sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), falls madly in love with the Duke of Blackwood (Colin Morgan), who is promised to another, and falls pregnant with his child.
Shortly after the birth of a baby girl, the Duke torches the infant in its crib, unleashing a wave of grief and fury in Freya that transforms her into The Ice Queen.
She moves north, establishes her own kingdom and kidnaps children from nearby villages to mould into an army of heartless soldiers.
“Do not love. It’s a sin… and I shall not forgive it,” snarls Freya to her trembling charges.
Two of her finest warriors – Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) – defy this edict as adults and are cruelly punished.
Seven years later (taking us beyond the events of the previous film), Snow White has vanquished Ravenna, but the magic mirror continues to exert a malevolent control.
Eric leads a mission to consign the golden adornment to sanctuary, aided by dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon).
“What happens if Freya gets the mirror?” asks Sara.
“She’d be unstoppable”, growls Eric, laying the groundwork for a showdown between former allies.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War barely breaks sweat as it warps familiar fairy tales to facilitate a heavy-handed fable about love’s redemptive glow.
Blunt’s solid portrayal of warped motherhood compensates for Theron’s campy theatrics that threaten to nudge a bloodthirsty conflict into the realms of pantomime.