By Kirby Davis, For The Miami Student

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is like the finale of a firework display — it’s mesmerizing, but there’s so much going on that it’s nearly impossible to focus on any specific aspect.

Serving as both a prequel and sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Winter’s War” was destined to be confusing.

Liam Neeson narrates, offering vague, arbitrary commentary on love and sisterhood, but even he can’t make sense of the plot. It’s a lazily constructed jumble of conflicting romances and contradictory moral messages, and it has little regard for sensible continuity.

In “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Kristen Stewart (as the titular character) and Charlize Theron (as Ravenna, her murderous stepmother) squared off in the name of their kingdom. Chris Hemsworth played the hulking, surly Huntsman, and though he was the one to revive Snow White with the original “true love’s kiss,” he did so because she reminded him of his deceased wife, Sara.

In “Winter’s War,” we meet this wife after a hastily paced preface that introduces the film’s primary antagonists — sisters Ravenna and Freya (Emily Blunt.) Years before the first film’s events, Freya is rocked by a devastating familial betrayal and flees the kingdom, showcasing Elsa-esque powers in the process. She forges a child army in her new, isolated, icy domain and attempts to raise them as “huntsmen” without any notion of love or attachment.

She doesn’t succeed completely — Sara (Jessica Chastain) and Eric (Hemsworth) fall for each other and elope, but Freya intervenes, forcing Eric to watch his wife die before taking off into the woods.

After a seven-year time jump, which covers the events of the first film and Ravenna’s banishment to the depths of her Magic Mirror, Eric is joined by a pack of unprecedented sidekicks to track down the now-displaced piece of furniture so that no one can misuse its power.

What ensues is a breakneck odyssey of revenge-fueled battles and special effects that isn’t sure if it’s about sparring sisters, the great “Love Conquers All” vs. “Love is Meaningless” debate or just showcasing the talents of costume designer Colleen Atwood.

This film is the most brazen waste of actors’ talent that I’ve witnessed since “Arrested Development’s” clumsy fourth season. Theron reprises her role with seductively sinister grace, and Blunt is subtler but equally powerful as Ravenna’s younger sister. They’re both forces of nature (literally and figuratively — Ravenna matches Freya’s icy abilities with her own ambiguous, seemingly fire-themed magical powers), but even they can’t redeem this hapless “Frozen” rip-off.

Neither can Chastain or Hemsworth, who fit awkwardly into the story. Their characters are too old to be pitied as the same child soldiers they were for a few minutes in the beginning and they’re too young to be respected as mentors or authority figures who hold any real power. They shoot, stab and maul their way through the film with stilted Scandinavian accents and a barely believable love story.

Live-action fairy tale adaptations are having a moment — according to Variety, Disney alone will be releasing close to ten in the next few years. But strong source material doesn’t guarantee a good film. And make no mistake, while “Snow White and the Huntsman” was a loose adaptation of the classic fairytale, “Winter’s War” is a distant half-cousin.

Initially intended to be a direct sequel with Kristen Stewart reprising her role as Snow White, it evolved into a far-reaching background story of characters we never really cared much about to begin with. It uses “Snow White” as a crutch, a half-hearted explanation for all the betrayals, magic and comic-relief dwarf sidekicks. But it feels like a live-action adaptation of Disney’s 2013 megahit “Frozen” — readjusted for adult audiences with generous fight sequences and an alternative ending.

The only aspect of “Snow White” that remains here is the antagonists vying to become “fairest of them all,” and this feels silly in the otherwise brutal, war-ravaged drama.

“Winter’s War” had ample opportunities to defy its genre norms and refuse to succumb to tired clichés like meaningful jewelry and an “I never miss”-style archer, but instead it relies on them. What could have been a compelling tale of sisterly strife, a worthwhile backstory for the titular Huntsman or both, ended up as neither.

2/5 stars

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