When Snow White and the Hunstman debuted in 2012, it marked the beginning of what's become sloppily known as the "revisionist fairy tale" genre, a genre that still hasn't found the presumably fervid audiences that'll eat every morsel Hollywood serves up to us. The Huntsman: Winter's War will leave you near starving with the lack of anything that passes for intrigue or stakes, with its beautifully costumed cast aimlessly wandering a landscape so unsure of itself it refuses to declare itself a sequel or prequel and becomes both.
Freya (Emily Blunt), the sister of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), has spent her years kidnapping the country's children, raising them as an army known as the Huntsmen as a means of compensating for the loss of her own child. The only rule to be a Hunstman is you can never fall in love. Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are Hunstmen who end up breaking Freya's one rule with complications shaping their lives forever.
It's probably safe to assume the script for The Huntsman looked like a kindergarten art project, a lot of glue and scissors, because the resultant film has a cut-and-paste feel. Narrator Liam Neeson gives us the history of Ravenna and Freya - in one of many retconning choices ignoring Ravenna's brother from the first film. One is the good witch queen and the other is the bad and you're safe assuming the woman with the talons on her fingers growling all her lines is the evil one whether you saw Snow White and the Huntsman or not. After a horrific baby murder, the film segues into Freya's creation of the Hunstmen army, fighting for lands or dominanting something that's never properly contextualized. Eric and Sara fall in love and are separated....
Cut to the film's second half, where the sequel comes into play, and from there the elements most closely drawn from the original film are returned. We get more Ravenna, the return of the dwarfs (here played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon with newcomers Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach), and the One Ring magic mirror. Neither half of the film is perfect, but the earlier backstory somewhat more original than the latter could have yielded a movie on its own.
As you've probably noticed from all the strikethrough snarkiness, there are a lot of "homages" to other, better features. Imagine if this was the story of Anna and Elsa - with Anna a total bitch - fighting over the One Ring and sending a group that's not Frodo and his men out to seek it and you'd get The Huntsman: Winter's War. (And don't forget Freya's owl Mardi Gras mask David Bowie in Labyrinth no longer needed.) I'm all for referrals to other films but, too often, Evan Spiliotopoulous (thanks for making me spell that one!) and Craig Mazin's script falls back on these references as a means of avoiding proper explanation. Hence, if you've watched any of those films, you can deduce where everyone will end up based on past precedent.
For his part, visual effects man turned director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan fancies himself the next Tarsem Singh, as the film relies on opulence when it's not mired in the grimy browns and blacks someone watching Game of Thrones thought was still cutting-edge. The film's second half is where all the crazy costumes and soupy mirror effects happen and though they're beautiful everything feels like a music video, complete with glitter showers, and/or a retread of Charlize Theron's J'Adore ad.
The original film, flawed though it was, had some sort of purpose - giving us a Snow White no longer interested in being complaisant and becoming an active participant in her own story. There's nothing similar here in The Huntsman, in fact you can see the actors themselves wondering where everything's going. In essence, it's the story of a man winning everything he wanted...nothing new to see there. Sara and Eric's forbidden love has a Romeo-and-Juliet vibe, and characters constantly bring up Hallmark slogans about love being powerful so maybe that's what it's all about? Nope, I'm sticking with "be a man and you can get everything you believe you deserve."
If all we need is love you'll need to do better than our leads. Theron and Blunt are fine, even if they're stuck doing nothing for over half the film. Theron enjoys mugging for the camera and I could have stood more than the 25 minutes or so we got. Blunt, like Chastain, is oddly passive and that's not a character trait; both actresses come off as tired and utterly distinterested in the material.
Blunt gives it her all but Chastain isn't hiding the fact that she's thinking of being anywhere else; this was a contractual obligation for her. Her Scottish accent, like Hemsworth's, is incredibly muddy when the actors are actively trying to sustain it, but she mostly just stares into space. The film compensates for her and Hemsworth's lack of interest in each other by turning every conversation into foreplay (or potential date rape), content to put them in situations where they'll have to grind against each other to stimulate some type of reponse that's ultimately...flacid. At the end of the day the film is about the HuntsMAN, and Hemsworth is becoming a parody of himself. Nearly every line he has sees him grinning at the camera, as if a smile is supposed to be enough. The man can only skate on charm for so long and it's wearing thin.
Brydon, Frost, Smith, and Roach are the lone breath of fresh air here, the ladies in particular. The dwarf trope is woefully unfunny in this day and age, and many of the discussions here involve attacking women and making bad jokes about how the group are height-challenged....haha, making fun of disabilities...but the actors try their damndest. Smith alone steals all her scenes as a red-blooded woman announcing why we're all there, for the Hemsworth.
You'll be able to write your own article on the loose ends left in The Huntsman: Winter's War. The group goes on a quest to find the mirror because Snow White (Kristen Stewart's body double) is ill. Does she live or die? Who cares! Snow White is the MacGuffin in this feature. Oh, and let's not ignore the fact that there's no war here. Winter may be coming, but it's pretty meager in this film.
The Huntsman: Winter's War is a slog to get through, and after seeing the amazing visuals in last week's Jungle Book, the ice effects here look incredibly cheap. Even the actors yawn their way through this nearly two-hour snoozefest. Just download Halsey's "Castle" and play Frozen alongside it...you'll get a better experience.