As The Huntsman: Winter’s War nears its climactic battle (eh, more like a brief skirmish), Chris Hemsworth’s title character makes a harrowing leap off the side of a mountain onto a castle compound, slipping from rooftop to rooftop while desperately reaching out for something to grip. At the last possible moment, his axe finds a landing spot on the edge of a roof, and he’s able to take a moment to appreciate his improbable survival, playfully boasting aloud to no one in particular, “This is the worst plan ever!” He, of course, heartily laughs at his own joke even though his delivery of it wasn’t actually that great.
It’s swell and all that he’s having such a great time, but there’s still the little matter of an evil queen to defeat and an entire country to save. Also, crying out loud like that is probably not the best move when you’re trying to sneak up on an entire castle full of soldiers. Come to think of it, since when did he add one-liners to his vocabulary?
Yet, in a better constructed movie our hero crying out “This is the worst plan ever!” would actually earn a laugh. Here, at best, it inspires a smirk, albeit a potentially sarcastic one. That’s because The Huntsman is like a film-length version of an outtake, chock full of scenes in which the actors are clearly enjoying themselves a bit too much. The jokes they tell rarely inspire laughter, the menace they attempt to campily convey is not always convincing and their clear joy is largely unearned. However, similar to BirthMoviesDeath I found it all oddly charming.
For the record, I’ve never seen Snow White and The Huntsman. I know it more for its “female star sleeps with the married director” controversy than its actual merits as a film, though I understood it to be a generally liked, but unloved movie. As such, Winter’s War serves as both a prequel and sequel to a movie I’ve never seen before, yet thanks to Liam Neeson’s storybook narration during the prologue and several well-placed context clues I was never lost. Perhaps more importantly, I was also never burdened with trying to connect the dots from the first movie to the new one.
That’s not to suggest Winter’s War doesn’t have a huge Snow White problem, because it does. Kristen Stewart did not come back (and she’s totally happy she didn’t), and they opted against re-casting the role. Instead, they used a body double. Snow White, who defeated the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in the first movie and became the new ruler of the majority of the land, is glimpsed one time from afar with her face obstructed as she pounds her hands against an evil magical mirror which has driven her insane. We are told she ordered the mirror sent away for delivery to some kind of magical sanctuary, but it has been lost en route.
That sets into motion a MacGuffin-driven plot positioning the mirror as a Lord of the Rings-esque power ring corrupting all who gaze upon it. Snow White’s former ally, Erik the Huntsman (Hemsworth), is off living a quiet life in some isolated cabin, but he’s quickly recruited to help track the mirror to prevent it from falling into the hands of Ravenna’s sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who rules the north from her ice castle.
The problem is that once this particular MacGuffin inevitably falls into the wrong hands the plot turns into the build-up to a war against Snow White’s kingdom, yet she is nowhere to be found nor is there any real sense of her kingdom other than a basic “her part of the world is green and beautiful while Freya’s is snow-covered and depressing.” Any threats made against Snow White’s life are undercut by our knowledge that Kristen Stewart’s nowhere to be found. So it’s like the villains are mounting a war against an unseen sitcom character, like Wolowitz’s mom on Big Bang Theory (except at least she got to talk, albeit entirely off-screen).
However, when Winter’s War is less about its titular war and more about the origin story of an evil queen and the fractured love affair between Erik and Sara (Jessica Chastain), his not-so-dead wife, it’s actually doling out perfectly competent, if largely derivative fantasy movie material (they’re stealing from Lord of the Rings, Frozen, Brave, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, etc.).
In the prologue, we learn Freya was once the more optimistic and caring yin to Ravenna’s yang, but when tragedy struck (and at the hands of the man she loved, no less) her powers emerged and her heart grew cold. While her sister ruled over her own kingdom, Freya traveled north and conquered king after king, stealing children from parents and training them to be her special task force known as The Huntsmen. They were to serve her bravely and honor her one rule: no falling in love. Such a thing is forbidden in her land.
That’s right – this is essentially a fantasy version of Footloose. There, a town outlawed dancing. Here, a queen outlaws love. You roughly know where this is heading, although if you guessed “dance party” you’d be wrong, even if we can all agree that this movie would be at least 55% better if it ended with a dance party.
As they grow up together, Erik and Sara just can’t stop themselves from falling deeply and passionately in love. For her, maybe it’s the way Erik was nice that one time to a scared little girl who was newly stolen from her parents and forced into Freya’s service. Plus, he looks like Chris Hemsworth. That helps. For Erik, maybe he just dug Sara’s obvious impression of Merida from Brave, and he found her Scottish accent charming, particularly how it seems to come and go without explanation. Either way, their plan to run away together is felled by Freya, who uses her powers to separate and trick them.
Reunited 7 years later during his quest for the mirror, their memory of their separation massively differs, and their love won’t be so easily rekindled.
Along the way, they’re joined by dwarves (all played with surprisingly limited effectiveness by talented British comedians/comedic actors), battle monkey-like goblins and generally bicker, displaying the unmistakable spark of two people still in love but also of two actors having a great time together. Not surprisingly, Jessica Chastain told The Nerdist she only joined Winter’s War after feeling burnt out from playing so many serious roles since Zero Dark Thirty, and it ended up being the most purely enjoyable experience she’s ever had making a movie.
That level of personal enjoyment is obvious throughout the film. The entire cast seems blissfully aware that this isn’t exactly Shakespeare they’re working with. As Emily Blunt joked on James Corden (much to Theron’s comic objections), the majority of her job was showing up on set and letting the costumes do the acting. For example, at one point Freya is seen draped in a gorgeous white gown with remarkably intricate crystalline adornments, but she’s also completely stiff as a board, wearing such an impractical costume while seated on the back of a giant, white beast which looks like a wild boar mixed with a polar bear. You know the animal is completely CGI and fake as could be, and you know Blunt’s costume meant she could barely move. However, that doesn’t mean she couldn’t carry the emotion of the moment. Some members of the cast are just better at it than others. Blunt and Chastain, for example, are far more compelling than Theron and Hemsworth.
First-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who was the visual effects supervisor on Snow White and The Huntsman, predictably proves more adept at visuals than story. The always gorgeous fantasy imagery he trots out often seems somewhat incompatible with what came before, oddly seguing from obvious Lord of the Rings moments to sequences straight out of a Disney movie. However, this creates an inherent weirdness in the film which endears rather than repels, persuading you – if you’re willing – to simply give in to the charms of a strange fantasy movie which never takes itself too seriously.
Look at Hemsworth and Chastain up there on screen talking about love. Marvel at how undefined their accents are, particularly Hemsworth’s, which is somehow simultaneously Scottish and Australian. Gawk at some of the inventive CGI, and appreciate all of the perfectly diverting, if somewhat blurry action scenes. Note the plot holes which creep in during the final act, but respect the way Troyal managed to hold it all together for so long.
But, mostly, just have fun with it. Winter’s War is a simple story about a love-less land, and it features group of actors taking a paycheck gig and doing their best to make the most of it. It is so well-meaning in its badness and lack of originality while also surprisingly well-done in other areas that I couldn’t help but be charmed by all of it.
When Winter’s War is less about its titular war and more about the origin story of an evil queen and the fractured love affair between The Huntsman and his not-so-dead wife it’s actually doling out perfectly competent, if largely derivative fantasy movie material. At this point, it’s already considered a box office bomb, but it should go down as the type of flawed fantasy movie people will watch years from now and conclude, “It’s really not that bad.” Not that RottenTomatoes agrees with me…
17% – “The Huntsman: Winter’s War is visually arresting and boasts a stellar cast, but neither are enough to recommend this entirely unnecessary sequel.”