THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR (6.5 out of 10) Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan; Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, based on characters by Evan Daugherty; Starring Chris HemsworthCharlize TheronJessica ChastainEmily BluntNick FrostRob BrydonSheridan SmithAlexandra RoachSope Dirisu; Running time 114 min; Rated PG-13 for "fantasy action violence and some sensuality"; In wide release April 22, 2016.

Some movies should never be made. We didn't need 2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman," which came and went and was as mediocre as it was forgettable and boring. Even more often, we don't need a sequel, which is the logical extension of this thinking. But once in a blue moon, a sequel to an awful movie becomes something better, something brilliant. "The Huntsman: The Winter's War" almost gets there, and would have been even better had it not occasionally fallen into cliched tropes.

Winter's War is like that kid who sits in the back of the classroom, usually eating paste, but who produces the most stunningly beautiful piece of artwork. And then just as you're enjoying how masterful it is, he smears a giant streak of fingerpaint across it to make a smiley face. See-- because it's a happy painting, get it? But because you never expected much from him anyway, you still focus on the amazing beauty of what might have been.  

The film makes its first, best, and boldest move by dumping the titular character from the first film, Snow White, played by Lippy McBiteyPouterson herself, Kristen Stewart,  and instead focuses on the two characters from the first film worth caring about: the Hunstman, played by Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, and the Evil Queen Ravenna, played by Imperator Furiosa herself, Charlize Theron. 

The other masterstroke is that it introduces us to a host of other characters who are, to a person, far more interesting than the original cast. On top of that, it is a female-dominated cast where the female characters and actors, also to a person, surpass their male counterparts. 

Part prequel and part sequel, "Winter's War" begins seven years before the first film, introducing us to Queen Raveena's sister Freya (Emily Blunt). Their sibling rivalry and love culminates with Freya developing her own powers over snow and ice, then seeking her own kingdom in the north. The lands she conquers, she adopts the war orphans and raises them as badass warriors: her Huntsmen. Her two star pupils are Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). The two develop a romance despite Queen Freya's icy prohibition against love. Separated and forced to fight to prove their love, Eric is left for dead and thrown down the river, where he floats into Snow White's kingdom and. . .  the rest is history.

The rest of the story takes place after the events of the first film. The magic mirror has been stolen, and it seems some part of the evil queen's malevolent spirit is causing it to turn people homicidal and crazy.  And so it becomes part horcrux, One Ring of Sauron, and typical macguffin as our heroes and antagonists chase the mirror down for their own purposes.

Featuring none of the original directing or writing team, and only a few of the cast members (the ones worth keeping), this becomes a fun movie. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan showcases his background as a visual effects director by immersing this film in the most beautiful set design, costumes, and creature work. While the 2012 film felt like a low-rent Lord of the Rings rip-off, this is original and fun and fresh. 

The film almost becomes a stealthy feminist flick. Almost. Because just when it seems like it eschews convention, it flops back on predictable tripe and tropes. And hence what could have been one of the most interesting and enjoyable films of the pre-summer season flops into mediocrity. But, for the majority of the screen time, it's enjoyable and, perhaps as importantly, interesting and thought-provoking.

As mentioned, the female characters outshine the males. Jessica Chastain steals this movie with every frame she is on screen. She makes co-star Hemsworth seem boring and pedestrian-- a tough feat against an Avenger. Blunt and Theron also offer one of the most interesting on-screen sibling relationships in recent memory, equal parts rivalry and love/support. And then there are the dwarves. Rob Brydon joins Nick Frost as a pair of dwarves tasked with helping Eric. They quickly encounter two female dwarves, both of whom, again, are better written, more interesting and engaging characters.

Where the film fails is that despite setting up situations that could have a unique or new outcome, it falls back into familiar cliches. While female characters seem to posture that they are strong and don't need men to be fully actualized (they don't), they still end up romantically coupled. And the final 20 minutes plays out with few surprises and much less fun than the preceding hour.

This film has no right being as good as it is. By all rights it should be terrible. Like "Gods of Egypt" level terrible. But somehow this delivers genuine entertainment and almost -- almost -- was completely brilliant. It unfortunately falls into easy answers instead of offering something truly revolutionary. 

6.5 out of 10

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Tags: Chris Hemsworth