Who knew that in ancient times - "long before 'Happily Ever After,' " as the narrator of The Huntsman: Winter's War intones - children were stolen from their homes and trained as soldiers at the bidding of a heartless despot. That these lads and lasses were given swords and staffs, instructed in martial arts (gleaned by repeat viewings of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), and dispatched to slay the enemy and expand the realm?
Here's the best bit: In the magic land of sprites and goblins depicted in this over-the-top prequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, the kids with the killer skill-sets grow up to become Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain. They are Eric and Sara, they speak in the thickest of brogues, and when they kickbox, leg-lock, and head-butt their sorry army of opponents, their long tresses whip poetically in the forest mist.
Aye, it's a beautiful thing - her red braids, his Thor-y locks. Hairdresser heaven!
There are actually two maniacal monarchs in The Hunstman: Winter's War. One is familiar from Snow White and the Huntsman: Ravenna, queen of the dark arts, played with regal looniness by Charlize Theron. She would eat her young. She would eat the scenery, too - and does.
The other is new, Ravenna's sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who is with child - a child, the Magic Mirror informs Ravenna, who will grow to be more beautiful than she. That simply won't do. Infanticide is in order.
The death of Freya's baby turns her heart to stone, or rather, to ice. "Consumed by grief and anger" (thanks Liam Neeson, uncredited narrator), she makes a kingdom, or a queendom, of her own. If she cannot raise a child, Freya will raise an army. Hence, Eric and Sara and all the other wee young'uns who will grow up to bow before Her Frosty Majesty.
Jump ahead a few years. It's unclear, at this point, if The Huntsman: Winter's War has shifted from prequel to sequel. The name of Snow White is invoked, but apart from a momentary glimpse in the Magic Mirror at the beginning of the film, Kristen Stewart, who starred in the 2012 hit, and who ran off with Hemsworth, does not appear. Here, Eric the Huntsman has eyes only for Sara the Huntswoman, and it is their mission to retrieve the Magic Mirror, which has been stolen.
Complications, a quartet of dwarfs, and various battles and betrayals follow forthwith.
Despite its title, The Huntsman: Winter's War is decidedly femme-centric. Theron and Blunt (who gets her own signature line of silvery gowns) are the dueling representatives of evil and power lust. Chastain proves herself an adept fighter and wearer of Game of Thrones-like leather wear. And along with the comic relief provided by the male dwarfs Gryff and Nion (CGI-stunted Rob Brydon and Nick Frost) comes that of the female dwarfs Bromwyn and Doreena (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach).
Doreena, in particular, will not be pushed around - she boldly puts the moves on Hemsworth's Eric. What's to lose?
Sampling Tolkien, Disney, and Grimm, The Huntsman: Winter's War lays on the pastiche in slabs, but no one is slouching here. Theron proves the master of operatic hissy fits, Blunt lets the pain show beneath the glacial cool, Chastain brings her usual Juilliard-schooled commitment to the occasion, and Hemsworth is Hemsworthian, if oft-times incomprehensible, delivering his lines in a gorse-y whorl of vowels and consonants.
But whatever it was he was saying, Sara seems to understand. "You're a right galoot," she tells her huntsman.
"So are you," is his snappy retort.
The Huntsman: Winter's War
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. With Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Chris Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (fantasy violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.