One trick of great fantasy storytelling is establishing the rules of the world — in "The Lord of the Rings," hobbits fear adventure; in "Harry Potter," Muggles can't perform magic; in "Avatar," humans can't breathe on Pandora. From those limitations come sympathetic characters and a story with a real sense of peril.
There are no discernible rules in the world of "The Huntsman: Winter's War," a dreadful sequel to 2012's darkly appealing "Snow White and the Huntsman." In the pale update, nearly every major character dies and comes back to life at least once and a convoluted narrative yields not a single, palpable moment of drama.
Not even the considerable charm of Chris Hemsworth, who plays the seemingly immortal, ax-wielding title hero, or Emily Blunt, as an ice queen with head-scratching motives, can save this dull mash-up of fantasy genre cliches, which wastes its A-list actors, stunning costumes and computer-generated artistry on a fatuous story with zero stakes.
The 2012 film, directed by Rupert Sanders, mostly succeeded as a visually rich retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with Kristen Stewart playing Snow White as a brave warrior princess and Charlize Theron delivering a deliciously over-the-top evil Queen Ravenna.
The new movie, written by Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos and directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, leaves out Stewart's role. Really, it's a Snow White movie without Snow White — can you imagine Iron Man putting up with that?
Set both before and after the events of the first film, "The Huntsman: Winter's War" stars Blunt and Theron as Freya and Ravenna, a pair of rivalrous royal sisters — think "Frozen's" Anna and Elsa with better eye makeup and worse attitudes. Ravenna mostly stares in the mirror and makes malevolent declarations. Freya, who starts the film in love and quickly suffers a trauma, begins shooting ice out of her hands, wearing metallic headpieces and training an army of child soldiers.
Hemsworth's Eric and Jessica Chastain's Sara emerge as the most talented fighters in Freya's army. Speaking in muddled Scottish accents and wearing cute leather hunting outfits (perhaps they're hunting for the plot?), Eric and Sara fall in love and try, unsuccessfully, to escape Freya's icy grasp.
Over the next hour, Hemsworth swashbuckles through six or seven plot reversals and multiple inscrutable fight scenes. He is joined by some bickering dwarves, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), and becomes determined to capture Ravenna's magic mirror. Wait, is Ravenna dead? Who's alive? Who knows? Who cares? It's raining and cellos are playing so something bad must be happening.
Though the cast are all pros who do their darndest to deliver the bewilderingly bad dialogue with conviction, even an Oscar winner like Theron can't sell lines like, "A humble pawn can bring down kingdoms."
Nicolas-Troyan, who had been the visual effects supervisor on "Snow White and the Huntsman," is making his directorial debut here, and there are moments that help explain how he got the job. When Eric and his merry band end up in a computer-generated forest, it's a gorgeous, magical place, where giant, moss-covered tortoises roam and butterflies flutter. If only we could linger here on the mossy forest floor and forget the dizzying subplots swirling in our heads.
Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who earned her 10th Oscar nomination for her work on the previous "Huntsman" film, delivers the drama the story lacks, this time via exquisite metallic gowns and headpieces. She drapes Theron in a kind of molten gold dress and Blunt in multiple ice crystal-inspired frocks.
At one point, when the two sisters appear on-screen talking conspiratorially in their glittering garments, I fantasized about what the actresses might have whispered to each other between takes: "Do you have any idea what's happening right now?"
"No. Did you read this script before you agreed to it?"
"No. But the good news is, we look fabulous."
'The Huntsman: Winter's War'
Rated: PG-13, for fantasy action violence and some sensuality
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes