The Huntsman: Winter's War starts out years prior to the events of Snow White and the Huntsman. Evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) has a sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), whose magical powers awaken following the mysterious death of her only child. She leaves her sister's kingdom and establishes her own empire in the North. She abducts children from villages, and raises them to be soldiers. Two of these children are Eric and Sara (Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain), who grow to become her finest warriors. And in spite of the Freya's rules against love, the two form a romantic bond. The Queen uses her magic to separate them, and Eric spends the next seven years mourning Sara's death.
The movie then jumps ahead to after the events of the first movie. Snow White's new kingdom is in jeopardy, as the magic mirror goes missing. Eric is dispatch to track down the mirror, and keep it out of Freya's hands. Along the way, he is found by Sara, who is apparently not dead. Freya showed her a vision of Eric running away, and she has held on to that feeling of betrayal for the seven years she spent rotting in a dungeon. The two team up with a bunch of dwarves to look for the mirror, and get caught up in the intrigues that exist between the sorcerer queens.
The first movie took the classic romantic fairy tale and turned it into a generic fantasy action picture. It was a shambling mediocrity that never did anything particularly well, and was only memorable for Charlize Theron relishing in the role of the evil queen. This sequel doesn't even really have that. It mostly focuses on Eric and Sarah and their journey towards loving each other again after being parted for so long. The movie doesn't do a great job of selling us on this relationship, much of it relegated to narrative shorthand as the characters are buried under the busywork of the plot's nominal quest.
This film states its themes out loud. More than once, a character will opine that love conquers all. This would be more effective if the love in the movie was in any way affecting. The film treats the central romance as a given, and doesn't really do much to convince the audience that it's worth fighting for. At times, it feels like the movie is more invested in a jokey budding romance between a couple of side characters over the central relationship. The film gets caught up in empty plot mechanics with vague goals, myriad distractions, and a general lack of tension.
It isn't a very good action film, either. The visual effects are subpar for such a big production. And it feels like the film is always cutting to the aftermath of the action rather than just showing it. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role, and he does a fine enough job. His accent gets in the way sometimes, but he is able to make some of this film feel fun. Jessica Chastain isn't able to do much with this role. Emily Blunt is terrific, but this role limits her performance to a couple of expressions. And Charlize Theron returns in a limited capacity that just doesn't allow for the same heights that she achieved in the first film.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is a mediocre sequel to an already mediocre film. It lays out an uninteresting mythology for this world of characters, and then sends on a story that suffers from a severe lack of emotional stakes. This film talks so much above love, but there is so much empty business in the picture that it's difficult to feel any love at all. Love needs to linger, and this film just doesn't have time for that. It's assembling what it believes are the elements to a successful blockbuster, forgetting to invest any feeling into any of it.