The Huntsman: Winter's War (two stars)

Even less fun to sit through than it is to read this review.

One would have thought that the absence of Kristen Stewart from a Snow White-based film was a good thing. The actress coasted through the Twilight series by running her fingers through her hair, which could mean anything emotionally. She was also less than convincing as “the fairest one of all” when the ravishing Charlize Theron was in the cast.

But surprise, surprise, Stewart has moved on to better (i.e., more prestigious) — if not bigger — projects like Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice. On the other hand, this budding fantasy franchise seems to be heading south faster than you can say “mirror mirror on the wall.” One doesn’t need no stinking mirror to know that being beautiful is about the best thing this film has going for it.

Right from the beginning it's apparent that less is not more, since what's on screen here is both a prequel and a sequel. Evil Queen Ravenna (Theron) is accumulating power, and intimidating her younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who discovers she has powers of her own — and they are (and I’m not kidding here), the ability to freeze things. Welcome to Frozen, part deux.

Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth, on of Freya’s soldiers, falls in love with fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain), which is forbidden and does not end well. Then the first film happens, and this one jumps ahead seven years where Hemsworth, now a lone wolf, is recruited by Snow White’s forces to retrieve the magic mirror from the first film and keep it out of the hands of Freya. Of course Ravenna is back and she’s more pissed off than ever, even though she was supposedly dispatched by Snow White at the end of the last movie.

Believe me, it is even less fun to sit through than it is to read (or write). That’s not to say that some of the story is not mildly entertaining — it’s just that none of it is really thrilling. A dangerous ennui begins to settle in about a third of the way through — been there, done that, know where it’s going, seen most of it before — and the film never manages to shake off that feeling.

Of course it doesn’t help any that the tone is so wonky. For quite a bit it’s deadly serious. And then, because it was threatening to become morose, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and the screenwriters made the movie funny by giving Hemsworth two companions who are dwarves (played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon). Because dwarves are so fricking funny — and if two are funny, then why not add two more? For a while, the film ventures dangerously into the realm of farce, and then becomes serious as death again (pun intended) for the big climax. Some shading between the shifts would have been nice.

Not that The Huntsman is without its occasional charms. Sometimes a comic line does land, as when one of the dwarves enquires of another’s husband, “How did he die? Gouge his eyes out?” Colleen Atwood’s costumes, which won an Oscar nomination last time around, are back and more elaborate than ever — and indeed might even detract from the lack of interesting story. The special effects are certainly state of the art, though few invoke the wow factor (Blunt riding a polar bear is about as good as it gets here), and the spirit from the mirror remains the best visual: faceless and draped in gold and creepy as hell.

The end result is not even a decent sum of its parts. And one can’t help but wonder if this is the best on offer for three of today’s most engaging and beautiful actresses (Chastain, at least, proves to be somewhat resourceful, though there is no doubt where her love/hate-tinged reunion with Hemsworth is going to lead). At one point I would not have included Kristen Stewart in that list. But times have changed, and maybe she is just what this franchise needs. The true question, however, is whether or not she needs it.