Review of "The Huntsman: Winter's War" (2016)
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Charlize Theron, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sam Claflin, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sophie Cookson
The Huntsman: Winter’s War feels like one of those old, cheesy sword-&-sorcery movies from the 80s, albeit with better special-effects. It is not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it as distasteful and depressing as its predecessor.
Although I couldn’t tell you why now, the 2012 fantasy film Snow White and the Huntsman was a movie that just hit me wrong. I had a very bad time watching it, and it left a bad taste in my mouth which I wasn’t able to wash away for what seemed like an eternity. The Huntsman: Winter’s War didn’t make me nearly as unhappy, which I suppose is something. It’s inoffensive, has a little fun with itself, and hey, there’s even a cool shot or two here and there.
Many of the film’s best shots involve the evil Ice Queen’s kingdom, an icy and towering monster of an ice fortress that seems to glow at night. One shot toward the climax that stands out shows the heroic Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) looking on at the majestic castle in the evening, and it certainly is a pretty shot. However, it also reminds me of one that was used in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe nearly 11 years ago.
The plot here serves as both a prequel and a sequel to the original movie. The opening scenes (which are narrated by an uncredited Liam Neeson) tell us how the once kind-hearted Freya (Emily Blunt) became the evil Ice Queen after her secret lover decided to set Freya’s newborn baby on fire. The tragedy awoken Freya’s powers, hardened her heart, and caused her to freeze the villages of the north and kidnap the children from the villages to turn them into her personal Huntsmen.
Eric was one of the first children to be taken, and he grows up to be one of the queen’s most beloved Huntsmen. The queen’s other favorite is Sara (a surprisingly bland Jessica Chastain), and despite the fact that love is forbidden in the queen’s kingdom, these two engage in a romance that has zero chemistry or passion. It is truly one of the flimsiest love stories since Padme and Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Freya finds out about the affair almost immediately, has Sara killed (or so Eric thinks), and leaves Eric for dead. Not too long after, the events from the original movie happened, and then this movie cuts ahead seven years later and turns into a sequel. Eric is trying to live at peace in the woods, but soon he’s approached by Snow White’s childhood friend William (Sam Claflin, who’s in the movie for one scene and is then completely forgotten about without explanation) with some distressing news: The magic mirror the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) valued so much is really evil and making Snow White sick. She sent soldiers on a mission to destroy it, but they failed to report back to her. Eric’s mission: Find the mirror and destroy it.
While Snow seems to instigate the plot, she’s not in the movie (except during the moments where we flashback to the original film, and one shot where she has her back turned towards us). Never mind. Freya finds out about the mirror and wants it for herself. Meanwhile, Sara shows up again very much alive, and she’s mad at Eric because she believes he abandoned her so many years ago (he didn’t, and the movie explains the confusion later on). Eric tries to reconnect with her, and she keeps shooting down his advances due to a plot twist that is so very easy to guess.
There are also a couple of superfluous dwarves (Nick Frost’s Nion and Nion’s step-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon)) who journey with Eric, as well as two she dwarves played by Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach who show up half way through the movie. Ravenna, who is actually Freya’s sister, also returns after Freya accidentally summons her when she asked the evil magic mirror that one question that so many evil vain women ask it.
You can sense the desperation in Evan Spiliotopoulus and Craig Mazin’s screenplay as they try to not only tie in this movie with the events of the original, but also set up a potential franchise for Eric’s character. Needless to say, they fail on all accounts. Certain characters from the original movie (like Ravenna’s pervy brother Finn) are forgotten about completely, and it just seems so very weird the way they manage keep Snow White and William out of this story, in spite of the fact that they play a pivotal role in it.
The movie doesn’t really work as an action spectacle either. While the visuals are at times stunning, the action scenes are kind of lame. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (who worked on the original film’s special-effects) films the action scenes in shaky close-up shots, while editor Conrad Buff chops everything up into incomprehensible quick shots. I have long wanted Hollywood to explain to me how that approach to action scenes is supposed to be exciting. After seeing so many movies over the years, I still can’t figure it out.
Needless to say, The Hunstman: Winter’s War is a bad movie, but it’s not unpleasant, nor is it really painful to watch the one time (although one time was certainly enough). The tone here is lighter than it was before (if you exclude the baby burning subplot), Theron (who’s only in the film for five minutes) dials down the screaming fits considerably (thank God), and Hemsworth is so charming as the title character that, if they did make another Huntsman movie with a screenplay that’s worth a hoot, it might be kind of fun to watch.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this movie is that it feels too much like a set-up for what the studios hope will be a franchise. It doesn’t have its own identity, and because of this, it can’t stand alone as its own movie. Should a franchise emerge, I hope they continue to make it good looking (which means no taking notes from the original) and keep the tone light and fun. I also hope that whatever screenplay the studios get, they encourage a few rewrites instead of just taking whatever first draft comes their way.
Rated PG-13 for violence and sexual content
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)