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Dull 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' wastes top-notch cast on mediocre material
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"THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR" 2 stars Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt; PG-13 (fantasy action violence and some sensuality); in general release

"The Huntsman: Winter's War" is a prequel to 2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman." It's also a sequel to that film. It also doesn't actually have a war, though technically it is set in winter.

If that's confusing, think of it this way: Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan's "Winter's War" is a kind of poor man's "Lord of the Rings," only if you swapped out Sauron with Elsa from Disney's "Frozen."

The beginning of the film takes place years before the events of the "Snow White" film, as Liam Neeson offers an exposition-heavy narration of the lead characters' origin stories. The evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) had a pure-hearted younger sister named Freya (Emily Blunt), who turned to evil after the treacherous William (Sam Claflin) killed their love child. In rage and despair, and awakened to her magical powers over water, she fled to the north to reign as a bitter Ice Queen.

Since she couldn't have kids of her own (which is technically a plot hole since her baby was murdered and presumably she can still bear children), she decides to kidnap all the local youngsters and raise them as her personal army. Her two best warriors are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), but their love for each other leads Freya to intervene with extreme prejudice.

This is where the film fast-forwards seven years, past the events of "Snow White and the Huntsman." Ravenna is gone, Snow White is ruling the southern kingdom, and Freya wants the magic mirror. Hence, "Winter War" becomes a race for Eric to find the mirror before Freya can use it to conquer her big sister's old stomping grounds.

To do this, Eric must enlist the help of two of his dwarf friends (Nion and Gryff, played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, respectively), and two equally ornery dwarf women (Mrs. Bromwyn and Doreena, played by Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach).

Eventually the Fellowship of the Mirror is rounded out by a mysterious archer, who spoiler alert is not Snow White. Snow White is mentioned repeatedly in the film, but all we ever see is a Kristen Stewart look-alike writhing in front of the mirror in flashback. It's a little like how ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." mentions the Avengers but only gets guest appearances from one of Thor's friends.

Of course, none of these quirky qualities are what really kills the movie. "Winter's War's" biggest flaw is that it's boring and feels longer at 114 minutes than any of the three-hour "Lord of the Rings" films. It's also predictable; all of the film's big twists and reveals are telegraphed well before they arrive.

On the plus side, if you stick with it long enough, "Winter's War" features some of the same impressive visual effects that distinguished the first film, and Smith provides a few welcome laughs at the expense of the other dwarfs. But by the time the CGI craziness kicks in, it's far too little too late.

The cinematic world has plenty of room for mindless B-movie escapism, but "Winter's War" is just too lifeless to justify excuses. And the waste of a quality cast just makes things worse.

"The Huntsman: Winter's War" is rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality; running time: 114 minutes.
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