We didn’t really need to keep going with Snow White and the Huntsman. That film barely sustained its own runtime let alone a franchise, and yet Hollywood being what it is we’re now stuck with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a movie with no identity of its own, so it rushes to steal what’s popular from everyone else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with narrative theft—there are only so many stories to tell—but you have to be broad about. Go Hero with a Thousand Faces. Winter’s War basically just pilfers from better stories in the name of a new installment no one asked for. And it’s a shame Winter’s War can’t stop stealing because if it stopped to look in the mirror, it would see it had the makings of a story about strong, powerful women.
Beginning before the events of Snow White, we learn about the upbringing of The Huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and his fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain), who were kidnapped from their homes by Elsa Freya (Emily Blunt), an evil witch queen with the power to control ice. Freya believes she’s doing right by these children by teaching them to be warriors and to reject love of any kind. Freya also just so happens to be the sister to the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who makes her home in the South of the kingdom while Freya rules Winterfell and the Wall the North. After Ravenna is defeated (sorry, spoiler alert for people who haven’t seen the first movie), The One Ring the Magic Mirror goes missing. Snow White (or rather, Prince William (Sam Claflin), since Kristen Stewart wisely decided not to return for this movie) recruits Eric to track down the mirror so it doesn’t fall into Freya’s hands.
It’s bizarre that The Huntsman is so terrified to have a personality of its own, and yet it would happily crib from more popular movies and letthe viewers spot the references. The whole enterprise just reeks of laziness and we’re left to wonder why director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan didn’t want to do more to put his own stamp on the material. Is the Magic Mirror going to whisper to its victims exactly like The One Ring? Wasn’t there any other way to convey that the Mirror is evil? Or did Nicolas-Troyan look at the script, think “Yeah, I think that Peter Jackson chap nailed it,” and call it a day?
When your film has so little reason for existing, you have to do more, and Nicolas-Troyan doesn’t even have the same level of visual panache as Snow White helmer Rupert Sanders, although he at least wisely brought back Colleen Atwood to conjure up some more gorgeous costumes for the queens. Unfortunately, that vision doesn’t extend to the rest of the movie, which feels cramped and almost cheap at times where you may as well see where the real set ends and the vast green screen begins.
In trying to make everyone else’s excellent fantasy film, Nicolas-Troyan, along with screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, missed what made this story so unique, and it’s far from the titular Huntsman. What makes The Huntsman special is how it approaches its strong female characters. Every female character, including the two female dwarves Eric meets along the way, can stand up for herself and is a powerful figure. Unfortunately, The Huntsman falls into the trap of “powerful” meaning “tough” rather than “interesting”. The only compelling female character is Freya, who stays grounded thanks to Blunt’s tragic performance that screams with every breath, “My character isn’t cruel; she’s woefully misguided.” Freya is undeniably a villain (she steals children and turns them into child soldiers), but it’s hard to hate her thanks to Blunt.
Unfortunately, the movie spends most of its time with its title character, and The Huntsman made me reconsider how much I really like Chris Hemsworth. I really like him as Thor and I think he’s got a great knack for comedy, but here he seems far too enamored of his own charm. Yes, the movie is calling on him and Chastain to put on cartoonish fairy tale accents, but it’s Hemsworth who accompanies his line readings with a non-stop barrage of shit-eating grins. It’s hard to tell if he’s gritting his teeth through the material or if he’s showing he’s above it, but either way, the performance reads as phony.
But perhaps that’s fitting for a movie as overwhelming superficial as The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Perhaps asking for something more from a movie that shouldn’t even exist is asking too much, but that shouldn’t excuse the utter lack of imagination or effort from this bland fairy tale.