A followup no one demanded to a movie no one cared about, Cederic Nicolas-Troyan’s debut feature is another example of the Hollywood supersedence of style over substance, of money over common sense, which instead of focusing on trivial things such as story structure or the development of characters places emphasis firmly on the physical, from the various design aspects to the dynamic action sequences.
Perhaps the result of appointing a former visual effects specialist rather than a dramatist as director, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is the cinematic equivalent of an Easter egg shell, pretty to look at but hollow, brittle and prone to cracks. From the beginning, Nicolas-Troyan’s movie has a split personality, opening as a prequel to the events of Rupert Sander’s 2012 disappointment Snow White and the Huntsman before the clumsy transition when it suddenly realises it would rather be a sequel after all.
Two sisters born into a family of witches, Ravenna (Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Charlize Theron) is a cold and powerful mistress of dark arts, seeking power through magic and manipulation while Freya (Edge of Tomorrow‘s Emily Blunt) is less ambitious but still hopes to find her place in the world and dreams of the chance of happiness and love. Tragically, when her lover rejects her and kills their daughter Freya’s dark legacy manifests, becoming the cruel Ice Queen; she leaves Ravenna’s kingdom to build her own in the far north, holding her subjects to her bitter rule: “Do not love. It’s a sin and I’ll not forgive it.”
From the children orphaned in the wars waged by Freya, an elite army of Huntsman is formed to serve her, but when her champion warriors Eric (Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Interstellar‘s Jessica Chastain) betray her by falling in love, the vengeful Freya separates them, Eric thrown into the river to drown. He survives, but is now an exile from her frozen kingdom.
The extended prelude over, heralded by the unexpected intertitle “seven years later” the film awkwardly skips to the aftermath of the death of the evil Ravenna in the rebellion lead by Snow White, as Eric, accompanied by the dwarves Nion (The World’s End‘s Nick Frost), Gryff (comedian Rob Brydon) and later Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach) must now find Ravenna’s stolen mirror before Freya’s forces locate it, knowing that with its power the Ice Queen would be unstoppable.
A patchwork of scenes bereft of dramatic or emotional impact, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is without life or joy, a movie in which emotions are talked about rather than demonstrated and plot points are expressed through digitally tweaked action sequences while the narrative gaps are bridged by the all-knowing voiceover, the attempt to maintain the fairytale framing meaning that the audience are told about characters rather than getting to know them. Similarly, with violence circumspect for the first half of the film, training sessions with sticks rather than swords, a goblin massacre evidenced only by what is found afterwards, until the film suddenly throws itself into battle with bloody abandon in the third act.
Sealing its fate as mockbuster rather than blockbuster is the creative team of also-rans who were assembled when original director Sanders was ushered out in disgrace, not only Snow White‘s visual effects supervisor as director but written by the king of the unwanted sequel Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3 & 4, The Hangover Parts II & III) and Disney’s crown prince of straight-to-video Evan Spiliotopoulos (Tarzan II, one of seven writers credited on Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning), a team whose collective resumes inspire so little confidence that it’s a wonder that the film, derivative as it is, is coherent at all, though undermined by a trailer campaign which spoils final act moments which would have been better left concealed.
Presented as a much more fantastical world than before, that is emphasised by how obviously the film wants to be The Lord of the Rings. Without a clear vision or apparently any of his own ideas, Nicolas-Troyan borrows too liberally from the aesthetics of Middle Earth with recreations of the Prancing Pony, safe haven on a rain-soaked night complete with hooded and cloaked warrior hiding under the eaves, an evil power seeking a cursed gold treasure etched with runes which corrupts those who are near it, and carved wooden boats sailing down a mighty river beneath towering snow-capped mountains.
When he finally tires of that corner of New Zealand, the film instead rips off The Chronicles of Narnia by having Ice Queen Freya arrive atop a polar bear in the manner of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch Jadis before returning both to her kingdom and Middle Earth, her fortress resplendent with the eerie green glow of Minas Morgul. That said, the costumes, sets and hairstyles are exquisite throughout, the countryside and forests are beautiful, and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is one of the best things about the film, the melodies if not the orchestration reminding of another fantasy, Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian.
While the headline cast are strong, Theron’s evil queen Ravenna doesn’t have enough screen time to show what she is capable of and Blunt, doing her best to bring life into Freya, lacks Theron’s charisma which seduced cinema goers four years ago. Although both Hemsworth and Chastain are good their considerable talents are underused, the Huntsman overshadowed by his intrusive Scottish accent which becomes noticeably thicker when reunited with Chastain.
It might be presumed that the only thing worse than a pair comedy relief dwarves, Frost just being his tiresome self and Brydon telegraphing his lines, would be for them to be joined by a couple of comedy relief she-dwarves, but against expectation Roach and Smith actually manage to improve things by quietening down the he-dwarves. Represented by a body double in one shot only, Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is barely mentioned and never missed.
Demonstrating the emotional range of a child where everything is love or hate or anger with no shade or subtlety, despite there being murder and war it is largely offscreen, the descriptions by the narrator making it seem that there is actually a much more interesting story happening elsewhere than what is being shown, the combination of the elements requiring skill and talent which the creators obviously lack.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is now on general release and also screening in 3D