By Cate Marquis, Staff Writer

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a part prequel, part sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Like the first fairy tale-themed fantasy/action/adventure movie, this prequel/sequel sports flashy visual effects and lavish costumes, but this one also features a more star-filled cast. Still, none of that rescues it from a rambling, unfocused plot.

The original was not a big hit but it featured flashy visual-effects and a strong performance by Charlize Theron as evil queen Ravenna (along with one of Kristen Stewart’s worst as Snow White). The visual effects and Theron are back, but Snow White is mostly absent (Kristen Stewart entirely so). We do get not one, but two, evil queens: Theron as Ravenna and Emily Blunt as her younger sister Ice Queen Freya. Mostly, this is a vehicle for the hunky Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as the Huntsman, whose love interest is now played by Jessica Chastain, in a warrior babe role.

The cobbled together script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin borrows elements from fairy tales and a number of films, including “Lord of the Rings” and especially “Frozen.” Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor for the first film, is the director for the sequel/prequel. Nicolas-Troyan was brought in to replace writer-director Frank Darabont, who had been picked to replace Rupert Sanders but later dropped out of the project.

The film opens with narration, and begins years before “Snow White”. Evil Queen Ravenna rules her kingdom with her younger, sweeter sister Freya by her side. Freya does not have her sister’s magical powers, but that changes when Freya’s heart is broken in a tragic fashion. Gaining magical power over ice, the now cold-hearted Freya travels north to become the Ice Queen, ruling a kingdom where falling in love is forbidden. To create her army, Freya raids villages for children, whom she raises and trains to become loyal Huntsmen. The best are Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain), who make the mistake of falling in love. Freya separates them then sets the other Huntsmen on them, with presumed-dead Eric tossed into an icy river. He recovers but, believing Sara dead, does not return.

The story skips forward to years after the first movie. Snow White is ailing and fears the Magic Mirror is the cause. It is taken away from the castle to be stored in a safe place, but disappears along the way. Huntsman Eric is tasked with finding it before the Ice Queen can.

The quest journey through a magical landscape leads to battles with goblins, back-and-forth sparring between Chastain and Hemsworth, and flashy scenes with Theron and Blunt. Hemsworth delivers his usual iron-jawed hero performance. Chastain is good in her warrior babe role as Hemsworth’s love interest, but Australian Hemsworth and American Chastain both affect odd, indeterminate Celtic accents. Dwarves (Nick Frost and British comedian Rob Brydon) who join the quest provide the often-rude comic relief. That does not really click until they are joined by a pair of female dwarves, played by Alexandra Roach and the wonderful Sheridan Smith, who is one the film’s bright spots. Emily Blunt is very good, and both she and Theron get in some wonderful scenery chewing as the evil sister queens.

Not surprisingly, the visual effects are the film’s strongest point. The plot is a total mess but the strong cast make the most of what there is to create some moments of popcorn-munching action/fantasy entertainment in a silly, overwrought sort of way.  This film has a lighter touch than the oh-so-grim original, which might make it less enjoyable for fans of the first one. It is worth noting that the cast has a lot of women in strong roles, unusual for action/adventure films.

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is just a little action/adventure/fantasy entertainment, nothing notable or significant. Since these movies usually occur in threes, it ends by setting up the next one. Maybe next time the cast will get a better script.