“There is another story. One that comes long before…happily ever after.”
An unseen narrator — an uncredited Liam Neeson, wisely choosing not to show his face in this film — intones these words at the start of The Huntsman: Winter’s War. He’s talking about the saga involving a certain magic mirror and Ravenna (a still-captivating Charlize Theron), the wicked antagonist from 2012’s Snow White and The Huntsman. But as this flat, uninspired prequel/sequel hybrid unfolds, it becomes clear that this “other story” is essentially an unimaginative mish-mash of Disney (shades of Frozen and Brave are added to the Snow White framework) and Tolkien.
Yes, I’m fully aware that Snow White is actually a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and that Frozen was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” However, it was the Mouse House that turned those stories into perpetually beloved classics. On top of that, Disney seems to be dominating every corner of the box office these days, so it makes sense for rival studios to try and borrow some of their shine any way they can.
In Winter’s War, we quickly get reacquainted with evil sorceress Ravenna — who was vanquished by Snow White in the previous film — and her murderous ways. We’re also introduced to her younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who is in love with a married duke and eventually gives birth to their daughter. Shortly after Ravenna’s Magic Mirror gives the sorceress a troubling prophecy about Freya’s child, the infant is killed by the duke. Freya, blinded by rage, unlocks her own magical ability and kills the duke with her previously un-tapped ice powers. The incident hardens Freya’s heart for good, and she leaves to establish her own lonely ice palace in the North. (Luckily, the cold never bothered her anyway.)
To help achieve her conquests, Freya assembles the children of nearby lands and trains them to become a fearsome, heartless army of hunters. (“Love is a sin” in her kingdom.) This is when we’re first introduced to Eric (Chris Hemsworth), one of the most talented huntsman in Freya’s army along with Sara (Jessica Chastain). Despite Freya’s edict, the two fall in love and secretly marry, which leads to tragedy after the Ice Queen discovers their betrayal. Following what basically amounts to a 30-minute prologue, Winter’s War effectively becomes a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman as Eric is charged by King William (Sam Claflin, one scene and done) with finding the missing Magic Mirror.
You might be wondering where Snow White is in all of this. Well Kristen Stewart — who previously starred as Snow — was dropped from the sequel after controversy erupted over her affair with Rupert Sanders, the first film’s married director. (Snow White briefly appears via archival footage and body double here.) At the risk of sounding flippant, I didn’t think K-Stew sampling her director’s poisoned apple was the worst thing that could’ve happened to this wannabe franchise: the surly actress was miscast as Snow White, who may have been fiercer in that incarnation but still needed to project ethereal beauty. Snow White and the Huntsman was a decent hit for Universal — nearly $400 million worldwide gross vs. a $170 million production budget — but not a runaway success by any means. In other words, a sequel getting made wasn’t exactly a slam dunk. However, a sequel that excised the original movie’s weakest link suddenly seemed more promising.
Too bad Winter’s War doesn’t come close to delivering on that promise. If there’s one thing everyone who saw Snow White and the Huntsman could agree on, it was that Theron was easily the best part of the film. So there was cause for excitement when this sequel seemingly resurrected Ravenna. Unfortunately for us, Theron far and away gets the least amount of screen time among the main foursome. (Fortunately for her, this also minimizes any potential damage this movie could have done to her career.)
Even though it may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, Sanders and his team impressively committed to their Gothic vision for Snow White. The sequel is helmed by first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who served as visual effects supervisor for the previous film, so it’s not unreasonable to expect Winter’s War to deliver some visual thrills. What we get instead are second-rate effects — Freya’s ice wall, in particular, looks both chintzy and phony — that display none of the imagination from the first film. (The coolest effect remains the Magic Mirror transforming itself into a human shape, something we’ve already seen.) And although Winter’s War isn’t being released in 3D, the movie seems to have been made with the extra dimension in mind. (The scenes in Freya’s ice castle feature flecks of snowflakes in the foreground that might have popped nicely in 3D.) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the studio “pulled a Fantastic Four” and decided to save a little money by canceling a costly conversion. Nevertheless, the most impressive visuals here come courtesy of Oscar winner Colleen Atwood’s costume designs.
Then again, Winter’s War‘s visuals are the least of its problems. I don’t mind that this film tries to inject more moments of levity. Hemsworth is given more space to do his Thor-ish charming lunkhead routine. And returning cast member Nick Frost (as Nion, the only dwarf from the first film who could be talked into returning) has some amusing moments alongside Rob Brydon (as Griffy, Nion’s opportunistic half-brother) and Sheridan Smith (as Bromwyn, the feistier and funnier of the two female dwarves introduced here). However, those lighter moments don’t fully mesh with the darker, straightforward story being told.
The bickering amongst humans and dwarves carrying an all-powerful golden object that has the potential to corrupt and destroy them often makes this feel like low-budget Tolkien. The problem is this film doesn’t come close to achieving the grand, immersive scope that Peter Jackson captured with his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Even the film’s gifted new additions are largely wasted. Blunt absolutely has the presence to go toe-to-toe with Theron, but is mostly reduced to coldly moping around her ice castle. She still fares far better than Chastain. Between Sara’s Scottish accent, the Chastain’s flowing red hair, and the character’s butt-kicking bona fides, you can easily talk yourself into Sara being a human version of Princess Merida from Brave. Unfortunately, every time Hemsworth and Chastain flirt, you’ll mostly be wondering which one of them is butchering their Scottish accent the most. (***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s Chastain.)
“What does the mirror show you? What do you see?”
What I see when I look at The Huntsman: Winter’s War — which actually has the gall to hint at a third installment — is a spinoff that focuses on the wrong standout from its predecessor, and a sequel that not too many people were clamoring for.