Of course, we live in an age when the only currency in film seems to be whether there’s life for the story after the credits roll. From sequels, prequels, and spin-offs to books, video games, and TV shows, making a movie isn’t so much its own reward as a downpayment on years of profits made from all the other things you can stamp its name on. And then there’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War. It’s the epitome of these I.P.-obsessed times; a prequel and sequel to a hit film based on a fairy tale, and at once trying to attract old fans while attracting new ones by shaking things up just enough. And thus it fails on many levels.
The Huntsman is one of those sequels that seems like it was designed in a focus group meeting. What did you like about Snow White and the Huntman? Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, Charlize Theron as the evil queen Ravenna, the production design, the action, and the effects. What didn’t you like? Kristen Stewart‘s postmodern feminist Snow White, the dour town, and at least half as many dwarves. Done and done.
The movie rewinds to show how Ravenna and her sister Freya (Emily Blunt) part ways after Freya’s love breaks her heart and kills their child. Freya is like the evil version of Elsa from Frozen, conquering kingdoms, freezing them over, and stealing all the children to turn them into her elite soldier corps. Eric (Hemsworth) is one of those kids, his wife Sara (Jessica Chastain) is another. When they fall in love, they break Freya’s cardinal rule, and Sara is seemingly killed while Eric is beaten and thrown away to drown in misery and booze.
Flash-forward seven years. The Huntsman lives a happy but solitary life after helping Snow White defeat and kill Ravenna, but the evil queen’s evil mirror is apparently driving Snow White mad. The King (Sam Clafin) asks the Huntsman to recover the mirror and take it to a sanctuary for safe keeping with the assistance of the dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) and his brother Gryff (Rob Brydon). They traverse the strange and magical lands in order to find the mirror, only to discover that the mirror is part of a much bigger game between the evil sorcerer sisters.
First of all, the producers did well to promote Hemsworth to the fore, and they were shrewd enough to know that showing off the Hemsworth charm is better than seeing him saunter around depressed and drunken. He also cleans up well, which is another improvement over Snow White, a fantasy movie that took the expression “gritty realism” a bit too literally through much of its running time. Seeing Hemsworth play the action hero with a smirk and a plan that he makes up as he goes along seems ideally suited to the actor. He looks like he’s having fun, and I suppose that’s saying something for the film.
Theron is another treat, although The Huntsman doesn’t make use of her nearly as well in this film than it did in Snow White. Still, she’s the one one that seems to be having the most fun making Ravenna crazy, sexy and psychotic all in one impeccably coifed character. As most everyone tries to play it straight, none more so than Blunt, Theron eats the scenery like she’s been starved for days, and despite her obvious talents, Blunt just can’t keep up even though she’s essentially the main villain of this new adventure. Sure, Blunt plays the ice queen, but she doesn’t have to act like an ice queen.
The film’s also smartly adds Chastain as Sara, a warrior more skilled than even the Huntsman himself, and it’s understandable why Eric would love her because she’s strong, beautiful and kicks all kinds of ass. Chastain’s Irish accent is atrocious, and why she would need such a regionally specific accent in a fantasy land is a question that doesn’t get answered, but Chastain clearly has chemistry with Hemsworth, and that is very apparent in their scenes in spite of the fact that script twists itself into a pretzel in order to undo the fact that Sara was supposed to be dead.
The other highlight is the film’s art direction. Everything looks awesome, and the effect of the oozing gold mirror is still a helluva a visual, but having said that, it would have been nice if a fraction of the time spent on designing this thing had been invested into developing the story. Turning Snow White into a Game of Thrones-ian fantasy epic was an interesting idea, but the script is torn between playing up those fairy tale tropes, and subverting them. The Huntsman definitely has Game of Thrones ambitions, but it hits a wall against the limitations of its own rating.
Confusion is a theme in The Huntsman, it wants to make its villains more complex than the typical two-dimensional limitations of fairy tales, but whenever Freya talks about love and its tendency to ruin those that invest themselves in it, the script sounds like it was written by 14-year-old going through their first break-up. The simplicity of relationships in this film seems to come too easy, except in the case of the magical sisters where they’re either tight-knit or rivals depending on the immediate need of the scene. Weirdly, the only relationship that’s even vaguely worth getting invested in is between the dwarves and the two lady dwarves they meet. It’s a nice rom-com in the middle what’s sometimes an overly serious melodrama.
But if we focus on the relationship parts of the film, it’s because the MacGuffin chase after the mirror frankly makes no kind of sense if you think about it. Does it give the possessor powers? Does it drive them nuts? Does it just tell you who’s the prettiest? Who knows, but it looks cool and it gives everyone something to fight over. The problem is that you’re never invested in the journey. Who cares who gets the mirror? Looking back at the film after it’s over, it seems like a well-meaning collection of a lot of different ideas that might work well enough on their own, but don’t add up to a very interesting movie.
The Huntsman is definitely pretty to look at, it’s got a couple of good actors that are allowed to do what they do best, but on a whole it’s a rather dull affair. Seeing this movie does nothing for you in other words, and in all the attempts at shaking this up from Snow White, that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed. Snow White too was ambitious, it had some good ideas and some good moments, but it was lightweight. It came and went, and the only thing it’s really remembered for is its behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a harmless endeavor, a fine film to kill an afternoon matinee on, but I’d be damned to give you a compelling reason to see it for any particular reason. In the end, the whole thing’s set up for another inevitable sequel because “Happily Ever After” is only conditional until the start of the next movie, coming soon to a theater near you.