I'll be honest: I fell asleep during Snow White and the Huntsman because I was so bored. I only saw the beginning and end of the movie. I mostly found it a waste of some nice costumes and Charlize Theron chewing the scenery as the villain. When I got a chance to see The Huntsman: Winter's War for free at Alamo Drafthouse, I decided to go see it despite my apathy for the previous movie.
The Huntsman: Winter's War starts before the first movie, when the eponymous Huntsman Eric was just a child. He was kidnapped by the Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna's younger sister, along with many other children. She decided to raise an army free of love after her lover murdered her daughter. Eric, of course, breaks the rule and falls in love with Sarah (Jessica Chastain), the dead wife of the first movie. The first thirty minutes or so cover their courtship and her death.
The movie then skips forward seven years and becomes a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. I know some disliked that Sam Clafin, who played the love interest, got to come back when Kristen Stewart didn't. I found it more palatable in practice, because he shows up for a few minutes only to direct the Huntsman to find Ravenna's mirror, which Freya is searching for to boost her powers.
What follows is a quest to find the mirror. Eric is accompanied by two dwarves, which becomes four dwarves when they meet two female dwarves on the way. Entirely unsurprisingly, they also run into the still alive Sarah, who believes Eric left her to die and isn't too pleased he's off jauntily living his own life. I thought these characters made for a fun ensemble. Chris Hemsworth was quite mopey in the first movie, but here he gets to crack some jokes and play off of the comic dwarves. Eric and Sarah's romance is perfunctory, but Chastain and Hemsworth manage more chemistry than Stewart and Hemsworth.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is cheesy, and could use far more of Charlize Theron's Ravenna, a performance that remains the highlight of the series. But you don't need to see Snow White and the Huntsman first, and I found it an improvement overall due tot he greater use of humor and the wider range of female characters. I also liked that the child soldiers weren't an entirely faceless crowd, nor entirely warped by their childhoods. This is a fairy tale that offers redemption.