During The Great Snow White Experiment of 2012, we saw two competing Snow White films go head-to-head. In one corner we had the Tarsem Singh-directed Julia Roberts comedy Mirror Mirror, and I bet this sentence is the first time you’ve thought about that movie in four years. In the other corner we had Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Kristen Stewart sleepwalked her way through a grand, Tolkien-esque adventure with a drunken Chris Hemsworth in tow. The gods of box office and contract obligations have spoken, and so now we have the unpleasant task of dealing with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a half-hearted brand extension that serves no discernible narrative purpose.
Set many years before the events of Snow White, Winter’s War opens with the tale of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her sister Freya (Emily Blunt). The death of Freya’s newborn child causes her to unleash devastating ice powers, and she soon retreats into the north to establish an ice kingdom where love is forbidden. (PS: The other thing that happened since 2012 was a little movie called Frozen.) Freya begins rounding up local children and training them to be her own personal army. Two of these children grow up to be her most talented warriors, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). The two fall in love, get married in secret, and soon incur the ice queen’s wrath.
Then this prequel jumps ahead seven years, bypassing the events of Snow White, and shifts into sequel mode. The second part of this story follows Huntsman Eric on a quest to retrieve the stolen Magic Mirror before Freya can get her frozen mitts on it and conquer Snow White’s kingdom. He’s aided on his quest by returning dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) and new dwarves Gryff (Rob Brydon), Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). The film’s middle act is a mess, mostly composed of jokes about how female dwarfs are ugly and male dwarfs are stupid. (How do dwarfs procreate? “By accident,” apparently.)
Winter’s War features a preponderance of plot, much of which is glossed over in narration by Liam Neeson, but surprisingly little actually happens over the course of the movie. There are fight scenes aplenty, though. You can’t make a movie with the words ‘hunt’ and ‘war’ in the title and not expect at least a little of each. From early training montages with Freya’s army to Eric & Co.’s battle against a nasty looking group of goblins*, this film does not want for action sequences, and most are actually quite entertaining. In fact, one of the only things keeping our interest here is Chris Hemsworth strutting his way through each setpiece like he knows he’s God’s gift to movies. (He’s definitely not, but it’s fun to watch him try.)
There are so many action scenes that it’s easy to forget that the whole movie is a dissertation on the dangers of love, not war. The script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin pits characters against one another time and again in the interest of examining how love affects us all. The whole story is set into motion as Ravenna manipulates Freya’s love for her child, which in effect leads Freya forbidding expressions of love to prevent the same thing from happening to others in her kingdom. (Or probably simply to keep her soldiers in line.) This ultimately comes to ruin Eric’s life, and it’s a hole that we see him digging himself out of in the back half of the film. Then there are the dwarfs, whose view of love is very much of the schoolyard teasing variety. For the dwarfs, love is dumb and stupid and gross. Until it happens to you, of course.
Unfortunately, this is only the thinnest of threads holding the film together. It’s less a unifying theme than a recurring plot device. The real meat of this movie comes from the dynamic between sisters Ravenna and Freya, from whom the entire plot spirals outward. Charlize Theron is once again magnetic and terrifying as the evil queen, and it’s to the film’s disservice that her screentime is so limited. The same can be said of Emily Blunt, who underplays much of her character, but it’s a choice that feels entirely calculated. She’s perfectly evil in her own cold, quiet way. It’s really kind of a shame this had to be a movie about Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman, because a film where Theron and Blunt properly matched wits against one another would be a sight to behold.
It’s difficult to actually recommend The Huntsman: Winter’s War for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it has all the staying power of a wet fart. If wall-to-wall action is your thing, then you might get a kick out of this one. For all other purposes, everything else about this film feels like a precisely constructed letdown. Everyone making this film knew what kind of schlock they were in, and it really shows in the final product. You’d think a cast this good would be able to pull more out of something so utterly calculated.
*FUN FACT: According to The Internet, a group of goblins is called either a ‘school’, a ‘horde’ or a ‘grund’. There does not seem to be a consensus on this.
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