The world of Hollywood sequels can be a curious place, specifically when it comes to a type I call a “Wait, what?” sequel. You know the kind: when a big budget sequel pops up a few years after a predecessor that was financially successful but either left little to no actual footprint in pop culture, steadily became reviled, or just inspired little to no passionate devotion; a film that made a decent amount of money on its opening weekend, and maybe a little bit after that, just because it was something to see that was in saturation release while little else on offer appealed. So Hollywood makes a sequel because the first film made money, despite the fact that there doesn’t really seem to be an actual fanbase out there. Examples of wait-what sequels in the last few years include Wrath of the Titans and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, while this summer’s Alice Through the Looking Glass is the next notable one to come.
Arguably the biggest wait-what sequel of 2016 — aside from the already been and gone London Has Fallen — is The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a sequel and semi-prequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. Making nearly $400 million worldwide but inspiring little critical love, the only real footprint the first film left on pop culture was in the gossip columns, regarding an affair Kristen Stewart apparently had with director Rupert Sanders. And so Stewart has, rather suspiciously, been dropped from the follow-up, as has the actual character of Snow White, beyond occasional references to her being ill or how she’s off doing something as queen of her new kingdom and can’t answer the phone right now so please leave a message. There’s even a baffling, short moment where we see Snow White for the only time in the film, except it’s in a way so that whoever is actually playing her is completely obscured, and all she does is scream at a magic mirror. The sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman effectively turns Snow White into Keyser Söze. And that’s weird, right? That’s so weird.
You kind of end up wishing more of the film was weird like this, rather than as cynically conceived as it all actually is. With the actual Snow White story already told and lead status now granted to the returning Chris Hemsworth, the writers seemingly felt they had nowhere to go but play pick and mix with the same old, generic quest narrative and iconography from whatever other fairy tale films have popped up in between installments — namely successful Disney releases. And thus, we have Emily Blunt as ice queen Freya (occasional narrator Liam Neeson seems to linger on the word “frozen” at one point) and Jessica Chastain Brave-ly attempting a (very poor) Scottish accent for a red-haired warrior with a penchant for archery. You just know they would have liked to squeeze in a comatose princess somewhere just to ride that sweet, sweet Maleficent train.
Blunt and Chastain never manage to make their characters more than inevitable Comic-Con costumes, while Charlize Theron’s evil queen, carried over from the predecessor, is relegated to the status of a bookend threat. Meanwhile, new helmer Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (like Rupert Sanders, an effects man venturing into directing) fails to craft a single memorable image that doesn’t involve Emily Blunt’s cheekbones. And so, it is left to the comedy sidekicks to provide the film’s occasional gasps for air from the sea of mediocrity. Nick Frost is on hand as the only returning dwarf from the first film (seriously, that’s also so weird), alongside Rob Brydon as his brother and Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith as two female dwarves who arrive around the midway point. The snide, silver-tongued Smith steals the entire film, relishing the silliness the bigger names seem forced to downplay and giving proceedings an actual pulse through sheer force of personality. Considering how little Winter’s War really has to do with its predecessor and subject, they might as well just make her the lead for a third film.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.