Last month his glum reaction to terrible reviews of “Batman v Superman” made a video meme sensation out of Sad Ben Affleck. What trending image of celebrity gloom can we expect from “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”? Joyless Jessica Chastain? Bleak Emily Blunt? Resume-riping Charlize Theron?
I hope not. They are excellent actresses ensnared in a ferociously bad movie. Their online melancholy would be ingrained in our consciousness far past memories of the film, which should evaporate in the opening weekend. Forget the subtitle right now: It doesn’t even deliver a war!
The film is a ludicrous prequel/sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which was itself a fractured fairy tale that needed extensive troubleshooting. The new film is also a shameless rip-off of “Frozen,” featuring rival royal sisters in a squabble, one a magical ice queen capable of throwing endless chunks of permafrost.
It shoplifts characters, themes, physics-defying stunts, visual images and ideas from the Disney children’s hit. For extra fun, it uses them in a fairy realm where children are either born out of wedlock, beaten, kidnapped, turned into lethal child soldiers or killed themselves — or all of the above.
The characters do not burst into song with “Let It Go,” though audiences will feel that way. This shamelessly illogical story begins as a long prelude before the first film’s tale, abruptly time-machines forward seven years at the halfway mark, then limps ahead until 123 minutes and countless wristwatch checks have passed.
Chris Hemsworth returns to his title role, and his awful “aye, lassie” approximation of a Scottish drawl as well. Theron reappears as evil queen Ravenna, launching an emotional feud with her magic-princess sister Freya (Blunt) who has engaged in forbidden love. When Ravenna ends Freya’s relationship in a deeply villainous way — the arch-cynic insists love is a delusion — the younger woman becomes exceptionally wicked herself. She jealously spies on lovebirds through a mechanical owl transmitting its sight to her magical bird mask. And she creates a sort of evil Hogwarts academy, snatching tykes and turning them into ax-swinging anti-romance gladiators.
Naturally, the child who will become Hemsworth’s character falls for Sara, a little scrapper growing up into action heroine Jessica Chastain. She has a brogue even more daft than his, and an ability to leap in the air, capture an enemy’s neck between her thighs and head-scissor him to the ground in a way that a Marvel superheroine would applaud; clearly they’re kindred spirits. As you might expect, their hidden love does not have Freya planning a wedding shower.
Blunt’s character is mostly dignified, drawn to destruction and death because she is heartbroken about her own long lost love. Against her woe-is-me sadness (perhaps triggered by her tedious dialogue) stands Theron’s serious-as-a-CAT-scan rottenness. While Blunt plays a semi-shy wallflower, Theron is a particularly carnivorous Venus fly trap. The script’s time-lapse structure means that although Snow White causes the diabolical Ravenna to wither and die off-screen, she is on hand here and there, pre- and post-fatality, shooting shards of sharp black glass out of her gown when she’s cross.
There are also actors playing dwarfs through computer generated shrinkage, and here the film showcases its only genuinely entertaining asset. The remarkable Sheridan Smith makes a surprisingly good, character-driven role out a throwaway part, turning the petite mercenary into a scene-driving 50-amp jolt of energy every time she appears on-screen. She’s edgy, belligerent, vulgar, powerful and appealing at the same time, smarter than the guys in ways that make her the strongest female in the cast. She delivers a put-down like “I expect you to stand there and look ugly, and not much else!” with battle-ax impact.
Here’s hoping the industry recognizes what she delivers here and forgets the rest.
This is a film that doesn’t even obtain mediocrity. This is the industrial-grade level of bad that only can be enjoyed by fans who watch films ironically for hipster laughs. For the rest of us, viewing it is like snacking on popcorn you found on the floor. At one point Hemsworth’s character, battered by his clumsy attempt to storm an enemy village, groans “This is the worst plan ever.” I think what he meant was “film.”
‘THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR’
0.5 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality.