WintersWarcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 114 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action, violence, and some sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-X Immersive Audio
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

If you only looked at Rotten Tomatoes you’d think that The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a real stinker. Out of 183 critics, only 31 pronounced it “fresh,” while the 152 calling it “rotten” gave it an average rating of just 4.2 out of 10. That’s the kind of score you’d look at and think, “This movie isn’t even worth renting.”

Not so, people. While there are plenty of things wrong with this follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman, whose 49 percent “fresh” rating starts to look stellar by comparison, there are also plenty of things to enjoy.

Chief among them are the nifty special effects and action sequences that help to bring this fantasy world to life. Black tentacle-daggers, fluid gold, and a live-action version of the ice-action we saw in Frozen are all flawlessly rendered. Battle and fight scenes are convincing, and the art and set designers do a decent job of creating a fantasy world that feels believably fantastic. The cast and their performances are also very good, and, apart from a few eyebrow-raising lines, so is the dialogue.

So what’s the problem? Well, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is both disjointed (kids will say “confusing”) and derivative—two strikes against it that make critics crazy enough to act as if it were three.

Winter’s War starts out as a prequel (“The Story before Snow White”), but then fast-forwards past the events of the first film. So it’s a prequel and a sequel rolled into one. There are a lot of unwritten rules in filmmaking, but this seems like a pretty big one to break. Adding to the confusion, like too many fantasies, Winter’s War is more complicated than it needs to be. It’s also WintersWarscreen2dark. Freya (Emily Blunt), the younger sister of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) whose spirit had been trapped inside the mirror and released by her sister, falls in love with a nobleman (Colin Morgan) she later believes has killed their child. She retaliates and leaves the kingdom to set up her own frozen kingdom. And yes, like Disney’s Elsa she has cryokinetic powers. She can build walls, put people in the deep freeze, and does so with more deliberate evil than her Disney counterpart. But even Disney’s ice queen is more developed as a character than Freya, or her sister, for that matter.

Much of the narrative revolves around Freya, who has ordered her minions to kill parents and abduct the children to “save” them from a world in which love is a hurtful lie. She trains them to become her soldiers with but one rule that tops even abject obedience: no one must ever love or fall in love. And the queen keeps an ever-watchful eye on her minions by using a magical, mechanical snowy owl and an owl mask. But because the Huntsman gets a backstory, we can assume this story is his. Eric (Chris Hemsworth) is one of those kidnapped children raised not to love, and yet he can’t help falling for his tough female counterpart, Sara (Jessica Chastain). Life gets complicated for them after that, to state the obvious without spilling spoilers.

WintersWarscreen1Frozen parallels abound—so many that you wish the filmmakers had been more creative—and when the snow queen rides a polar bearish creature it’s impossible not to also think of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Golden Compass. Thank God for dwarfs. Four of them (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach) liven things up and also provide opportunities for the writers to lighten the mood. With Hemsworth and Chastain they make for an engaging flight-quest story, despite the structural and conceptual problems.

This Blu-ray combo pack comes with an extended unrated version, but parents will find the PG-13 theatrical version strong enough. It’s every bit a movie for teens and older. Note that the Blu-ray version comes with three additional bonus features, all worth watching, and since this special effects fantasy looks best in HD going “Blu” makes the most sense.

Language: “Pissed” is the only language that intrudes on this fantasy
Sex: Blurred, side-view nudity that implies sex, but nothing graphic
Violence: Main characters are thought to be killed, others are skewered or shot; plenty of fighting and battle violence, with relatively little bloodshed
Adult situations: The whole dark fantasy tilts more toward the adult realm than the child’s; this is a movie made for adults that was edited to make the PG-13 rating so children could also see it
Takeaway: A stronger concept could have made Winter’s War a winner, but even as is it’s a film my teens said they’d watch again