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Despite top-notch cast, ‘Huntsman’ misses the mark

There is a moment midway through “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” in which Chris Hemsworth’s burly, winking huntsman runs up a rock wall, does a wrestling-style backflip, grabs the horns of a CGI goblin, and breaks its digital neck.

By the end of the film, you’ll feel like that poor goblin — manhandled, exhausted and unfulfilled. The prequel-sequel to 2012’s visually splendiferous misfire “Snow White and the Huntsman” is a dull, lumbering, laughable beast, easily the worst studio release so far this year.

And yet it stars Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain. It’s easy to wonder, how exactly did “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” snag such a heavyweight cast?

Consider: Charlize Theron returns as the evil Ravenna, joined once again by Hemsworth, better known as Thor. Kristen Stewart is gone, but then again, this is a prequel. Well, it starts as a prequel, at least.

It’s the new blood that really intrigues. I’m talking of Emily Blunt (“Sicario”) and Jessica Chastain (“Crimson Peak,” “Martian”), two of the brightest young actors in filmdom. These are grade-A talents. Why are they wasting their time in grade-D product as silly and unnecessary as “Winter’s War”? I mean, outside of a hefty payday?

They certainly weren’t drawn by the script. After a ponderous, Liam Neeson-narrated opening, we head back several years prior to “Snow White and the Huntsman” to meet a younger Ravenna (Theron), her sister Freya (Blunt), and, as children drafted to be hunts-people, Eric and Sara. The latter pair grow into Hemsworth and Chastain, which is good for them.

Tragedy turns Freya into an Elsa-from-“Frozen”-ish ice queen who breaks free from her sister and becomes a warmongering royal. There is one overriding rule in the land of Freya: no one falls in love. When Eric and Sara develop a bond … well, that’s bad for them.

The young lovers are torn apart, and we soon jump ahead seven years, past the events of “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Wandering Eric is drafted into tracking the (seemingly) late Ravenna’s mirror before Freya gets her frosty fingers on it.

And on we go for nearly two hours, dwarves in tow, into goblin dens, fantastic forests and menacing castles. That may sound intriguing; alas, it is not.

The fleeting moments of pleasure derive purely from the admittedly stellar cast. Hemsworth is once again tethered to a fantasy film — his career thus far has consisted mainly of fantasy flicks or Ron Howard flops — but shows again why he is one of our most charming young actors.

He and Theron seem to have the best understanding of what “Winter’s War” could be: a campy joy. Theron, especially, is delightfully, deliciously over-the-top in what amounts to a lengthy cameo.

It’s fun to see Chastain as a butt-kicking heroine, albeit a dour one. And Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Rob Brydon (“The Trip”) have some nice moments as wise-cracking dwarves. But Blunt is saddled with the film’s worst part. Her Freya is neither scary or particularly involving. Like the rest of the film, the character seems derivative at best, an outright rip-off at worst.

First-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan deserves some of the blame. Formerly a visual effects artist, he earned an Oscar nomination for his work on “Snow White.” Much of the CGI work looks wonky, although like “Snow White” director Rupert Sanders, Nichols-Troyan brings some splendid visuals to the screen. Too bad they are wasted on a script as sloppy as this.

Above all else, this film misses Stewart. Since her solid performance as Snow White, the actress has given awards-caliber performances in films like “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Still Alice.” Quite frankly, she doesn’t need a role like Snow White anymore. Yet “Winter’s War” certainly misses the mix of vulnerability and toughness she brought to the first film.

Stewart should breathe a sigh of relief after successfully avoiding this colossal dud. If Snow White returns for the inevitable part three, the actress should demand death-by-goblin.

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”

1.5 stars (out of four)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Running time: 114 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality.

The Lowdown: As a war between rival queen sisters escalates, two members of the Huntsmen army try to conceal their forbidden love.

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