Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who served as Second Unit Director on both “Maleficent” and “Snow White & The Huntsman,” makes a less than dazzling cinematic debut as the director of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”with Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain, and Emily Blunt.  This ambitious but lackluster Universal Pictures release fails to live up to its impressive predecessor and struggles to accommodate a burgeoning franchise as either a prequel or a sequel.  Ultimately, “The Huntsman” amounts to more of a superficial spin-off.  The first film with its dark but imaginative adaptation of the oft-told Grimm’s fairy tale emerged as a enchanting epic.  Unfortunately, neither “Twilight” actress Kristen Stewart who toplined “Snow White & the Huntsman” nor director Rupert Sanders who helmed the 2012 release that garnered $395 million globally and generated $155 million of those receipts domestically had anything to do with the half-baked follow-up film.  Mind you, Troyan wasn’t the first choice to call the shots on “The Huntsman.”  Three time Oscar nominee Frank Darabont who directed both “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” signed on to direct “The Huntsman,” but he withdrew after creative differences with the studio.  Troyan stepped into replace Darabont.  Clearly, Troyan he stepped into a film that should have been put out to pasture with the other piles.  If these misguided maneuvers behind the scenes weren’t enough to sink “The Huntsman,” you have to consider the derivative plot that is not only second-rate but also obviously indebted to the Walt Disney blockbuster “Frozen.”  Scenarist Evan Spiliotopoulos, who penned the screenplays of such Disney movies as “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure” as well as “The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning,” has modeled one of the two villainess in “The Huntsman” on the Elsa character in the “Frozen.”  Unless you’ve seen “Frozen,” you’d probably think that Spiliotopoulos had borrowed the idea of a woman who can freeze people until they turn into ice crystals from the Rogue character in the Twentieth Century Fox Marvel “X-Men” franchise.  The surprising thing is that Disney hasn’t cried foul about such a transparently obvious imitation.

“The Huntsman” functions as an origins prequel during its first half-hour.  Troyan and his writers present the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) before she married Snow White’s father.  Apparently, she acts like a serial slayer of sorts who liquidates one husband after another.  Ravenna’s husband, an anonymous monarch that she has wed, dies under mysterious but supernatural circumstances during a chess match while they are alone together.  After his death, Ravenna rules over his kingdom, and we are informed by omnipresent narrator (Liam Neeson) that he was among many who fell victim to her venomous charms.

At the same time, we encounter Ravenna’s younger sister, the impressionable Freya (Emily Blunt of “Loopers”), who is pregnant with the child of a Duke.  Ravenna warns Freya that the Duke will disavow her since he is engaged to marry another dame.  Although the Duke lives up to his promise to Freya, disaster strikes later and Freya’s infant daughter dies under mysterious circumstances apparently at the hands of the Duke who cremated her with fire.  We only see smoke rising from the cradle.  Ravenna has told Freya that one day she—Freya—will discover her gifts just as Ravenna discovered her own gifts as a sorceress.  The hideous death of her daughter prompts Freya to freeze the Duke in his tracks.  Freya reviles love and leaves Ravenna to create her own kingdom in the North and she wields her icy wrath without a qualm.  She wipes out all her immediate adversaries with an army that she has recruited from the children that she has abducted from the families of her enemies.  This concept is reminiscent of the science fiction movie “Ender’s Game” with Harrison Ford as well as the Netflix movie “Beast of No Nation” with Idris Elba.  Among those children that Freya has recruited are Eric and Sara who grow up to be played by Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain.  If you remember “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Eric lamented the death of his wife Sara.  In “The Huntsman,” Eric and Sara serve Freya faithfully throughout several bloodthirsty campaigns against her foes.  Secretly, they become attracted to each other and Sara ‘marries’ Eric in a hot springs one night when she drapes a medallion that her mother gave her around his neck.  Naturally, Freya discovers this relationship and takes them to task for it.  The first rule of Freya’s kingdom is that love is a sin.  Promptly, Freya has Sara killed and banishes Eric.

The remainder of its 114 minutes isn’t exactly a sequel.  You can catch glimpses of Kristen Stewart in the flashback sequences and you’ll see her husband, King William of Tabor (Sam Claflin of “The Hunger Games”) invoke Snow White’s royal name when he approaches Eric about an important mission.  Snow White has taken ill because of Ravenna’s notorious mirror and she had sent an armed escort to take the mirror to safe location.  The escort was slaughtered during the mission, and Snow White wants Eric to recover the mirror.  Uneven best describes “The Huntsman,” and the contrived half-measures that Troyan and his scenarists attempt to preserve some semblance of a sequel seem labored at best.  Typically, when a movie rakes in a million dollar plus haul, the studios keep the original director unless he has brokered a bigger deal for another movie.  Most sequels try to reunite the original cast but Universal appears to have ostracized Stewart and undoubted her fans will be disappointed at her lack of participation.  Indeed, “The Huntsman” antes up two surprises that anybody with half a brain can see coming.  Hollywood doesn’t kill off two major characters in the first part of the sprawling adventure saga and leave them to molder in death.  Nudge, Nudge; Wink, Wink; Know what I mean.  Quite often Hemsworth and Chastain speak in accents that challenge your ears.  Altogether, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” ranks as a stinker.

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