The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Liam Neeson (voice)
Small role: Sam Claflin
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Screenplay: Evan Spiliotopolous, Craig Mazin
Review published April 26, 2016
The Huntsman: Winter's War joins the unenviable ranks of such films as RED 2 and London Has Fallen by being a sequel that didn't have rabid fans clamoring for more, but gets made anyway because the cast of the original film had signed contracts to retain their services if a follow-up is made within a certain number of years. Despite not making its money back domestically, scraping up $155 million on a $170 million budget, the worldwide box office kicked in another $241 million, leading Universal to think that slashing the sequel's budget to $115 million could lead to a healthy profit with the star power they have on hand in Chris Hemsworth (In the Heart of the Sea, Vacation) and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, Dark Places), plus the additions of quality actresses like Emily Blunt (Sicario, Into the Woods) and Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak, The Martian) to try to make up for the absence of Kristen Stewart, who caused a ruckus for the studio with her much publicized affair with the director Rupert Sanders, who was also not asked to return. In Universal's eyes, it's a check waiting to be cashed with a defined expiration date, so they've rolled the dice that enough people are out there to make it lucrative.
Having already made Snow White into a warrior queen in Snow White and the Huntsman, the creative minds behind the franchise have decided to move on without her by crafting a film that is 1/3 prequel and 2/3 sequel, with only fleeting references to the first film (Snow White is mentioned, but is shuffled to the sidelines in a completely unsatisfying plot contrivance that negates the "Happily Ever After" ending of the first film). This truly is an attempt from a studio to peddle a product than something born out of a director or screenwriter's unique vision, as Universal gives the property to Snow White and the Huntsman's visual effects artist, first-time feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, to try to deliver all of the eye candy at a more modest budget.
On the prequel front, we find that the wicked Queen Ravenna (Theron) has a sister named Freya (Blunt), a more benevolent (at least at first) younger sibling who has always been in her eldest sister's shadow. Freya ends up in an affair with a handsome duke and soon has his child, but instead of starting a new life with her, the duke destroys their future by killing the baby. The resultant grief Freya feels at the deplorable act brings out latent supernatural powers within her to control the forces of cold and ice, which she not only uses to get revenge, but, once leaving to form her own kingdom up north, she also aims to make use of in order to raise and train many of the children of the land to not only fight for her as "Huntsmen" (who don't hunt?), but to also forbid them dreaded thing that left her vulnerable to the severest form of pain through the cowardly actions of her ex: love.
Two of the children in her Huntsman training regime are Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain), not only her best warriors, but also secretly in love with each other. Knowing they can never openly live a life together as lovers, Eric and Sara, now grown, vow to leave their responsibilities and start a life together on their own. Freya catches wind and forces a wedge, quite literally, between the would-be couple. From there, we presume, comes the events of Snow White and her battle with Ravenna, who ends up mortally defeated at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman, and the rest of this film continues Eric's story as he goes on the quest to find the Magic Mirror, which leads him to also discover that many things he believed to be true were merely deceptions.
As with Snow White and the Huntsman, this is not only a continuation of that dark fairy-tale adventure flick, but it's also a continuation of the liberal lifting of other fantasy properties in order to cobble together an amalgam of the genre's greatest hits. Primary among the films in which The Huntsman lifts elements is Disney's Frozen, with a few strands of The Bride with White Hair and its sequel. In addition, you have a continuation of the fairies from Pan's Labyrinth, the environs and giant, majestic animals like "Game of Thrones" if they milled about in Middle Earth, complete with a Magic Mirror with the look and rune etchings of the One Ring. Unfortunately, what it's not is "Snow White" any longer, as there are few traces except for a casual allusion to the original property, with a finale that less like a fairy tale and more like an "X-Men" showdown.
Hunstman also proves that you can't just stuff your film with recognizable and bankable actors and expect instant cast chemistry. All four main players are adequate in their respective roles, given how mediocre the lines given to them are, especially when three of the four are told to deliver their lines in terrible accents, but there are no mesmerizing moments between them. Take, for instance, the blossoming romance between Eric and Sara; Hemsworth and Chastain are certainly charismatic and attractive enough to buy as worthy of smoldering love scenes, but they come across more like a brother and sister than they do two people we anxiously want to see come together as lovers. I suppose this is what happens when Academy Award-caliber actors are given lines scrawled by Evan Spiliotopolous, the screenwriter of a bunch of Disney straight-to-video sequels like The Lion King 1 1/2 and Cinderella III: Twist in Time, peppered for comic relief by Craig Mazin, the jokester who helped pen Scary Movie 3 and 4, and Hangover II and III.
Given the jocular nature of Hemsworth's delivery, and of his dwarf cohorts, you'd think Sara would be attracted to the fun and frivolity of her potential partner, but she seems oblivious to his robust sense of humor, choosing instead to love engaging in battles alongside him without much banter, romantic or otherwise. Meanwhile, on the other side, the two wicked sisters seem like they barely know one another beyond the couple of scenes they have together, which makes their scenes lose whatever sadness or poignancy they could have had when it's time for the chips to fall. Here's a hint Hollywood: if you're going to make, "Love conquers all" a theme of your film, it should at least have one character or scene worthy of us feeling an emotion toward. An uncredited Liam Neeson (Run All Night) narrates the film for reasons unknown; he does not appear in front of the camera, so it's distracting to hear his distinct voice on the screen telling us things they should really be showing us instead.
What's left is more or less what the original abundantly delivered -- eye candy. Lots of special effects, gorgeous costumes, lavish hairstyles and make-up, energetic action choreography, and beautiful actors fill the screen, making it a veritable feast for the eyes, even if there's nothing for the heart or soul to consume. It's a film that, at once, plays for a variety of potential audiences, but not in any sort of fashion where it might adequately satisfy any specific one, especially fans of the first film who not only would prefer to see Snow White return, but, at the very least, don't want to see her arc from the first film come completely undone in seconds.
With the existing fan base disappointed, and no new fans climbing aboard, perhaps this will be the end of this series. Then again, if we've learned anything from the franchise thus far, it's that just because you think you've seen the last of a character doesn't always mean you will, especially if there's another proverbial check on the table waiting for be cashed.
©2016 Vince Leo