by Philip Price
The biggest fight this unnecessary sequel was always going to battle was the one for purpose. In 2012's “Snow White and the Huntsman” there was much to admire in terms of visually stunning design and creativity for the functionality of much of those designs, but both the story and the characters felt thin, cobbled together from different mythologies, and thrown together in hopes of becoming a new take on an old tale. With “The Huntsman: Winter's War” the film once again faces something of an identity crisis-wanting to be a number of things, but never focusing on one single aspect enough to actually be about something. As the first film was an attempt to capitalize not only on the idea of turning well-known fairy tales into live-action adventures, but on swinging the Hollywood pendulum towards more female-centric action vehicles the focus is still very much on the ladies. This is all well and good until you realize that once again this ‘Huntsman’ film is simply pulling from other stories to try and cobble together a legend of its own to no avail-giving extremely talented actresses nothing to work with. While not a direct sequel or even a full prequel, Winter's War is a spin-off of sorts that encapsulates all of the previous film and intends to add a broader scope and depth to the proceedings. In doing this we are offered a take on recent female Disney characters such as Elsa's Ice Queen from “Frozen” in the form of Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) and Merida from Pixar's “Brave” in the form of Sara (Jessica Chastain). Done in the hope that telling a darker, more action packed story would appeal not only to the kids who enjoyed those movies, but to the adults who've likely seen them on repeat and might find it interesting to see variations on such characters in live action form it's a fine enough strategy. At the very least this strategy provides some kind of template for the film to build strong female characters upon, but as a final product the film does nothing interesting with the majority of its characters in a story so scattered and with one too many lulls that even the beauty of both the visuals and actors isn't enough to distract from the weariness of it all.
The first sign there was going to be something of an issue with trying to re-configure a sequel solely around the supporting character from the first film was the fact the first fifteen minutes is dedicated to backstory and setting up our antagonist's motivation. Understanding the need to tie into the events of the first film, but attempting to create one's own story the hired gun screenwriters on this project (Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos) give Charlize Theron's Ravenna a little sister (Blunt) who apparently exposes Ravenna's only inclinations for emotional weakness, but who disappoints her by falling in love with a man and bearing his child. As this man was promised to another woman he is unable to commit to Freya and so he takes from her their child, leaving her cold...literally. In the wake of such heartbreak Freya discovers her power to shoot ice from her hands and generally just control the weather. With her new power, Ravenna gives her younger sister a kingdom of her own to rule over (because that's how these things work) and decides her rule of thumb will be that if love is only going to bring her heartbreak instead of happiness that no one in her kingdom shall be happy and thus love is forbidden. It's a very elementary idea, but is used as reason for Freya to take the children of her kingdom from their parents, breaking the ties early, and training them to be fierce warriors and huntsmen so that they may assist the Queen in gaining more power over more lands. Within the first batch of children she recruits are a young Eric (Conrad Khan) and young Sara (Niamh Walter) who, naturally, as soon as their eyes meet begin to like one another. As they grow and mature this affection grows into a forbidden love that brings Eric (now Chris Hemsworth) and Sara to be husband and wife. It is when Freya discovers their secret that she intends to rid her kingdom of any such lawbreakers with Eric narrowly escaping making room for the events of the first film. Mind you, this is all within the first forty-five minutes of the film as the rest of Eric's adventure post-Snow White deals with tracking down the mirror and destroying it. Any guesses as to how strained this all feels? The answer is very.
At the very least the film is ambitious in its attempt to achieve the task set out in front of it, but the execution is often more stop and go and too inconsistent to convey any type of story that will leave audiences feeling either connected or affected much less both. With the first, almost hour of the film feeling like a crash course in backstory and set-up, the second half of the film features long stretches of nothing that seem intended for character development, but while the conversations being held move the plot forward and occasionally offer some character insight nothing about the nature of the tone feels urgent or as if there is any type of real peril looming. There is no sense of immediacy to the danger our titular Huntsman is supposedly in until he intermittently meets up with a bad guy he must fight making such set pieces feel more like action beats for the sake of action beats rather than anything that is actually meant to develop the story. Hemsworth is his typical charming and charismatic self here, but he sports a Scottish accent that is borderline unintelligible at times with his attempts at humor being up-ended by the two dwarfs this film was able to coral. Returning from the first film is Nick Frost as Nion with Rob Brydon joining in this time around as Nion's brother, Gryff. On their journey with Hemsworth's Huntsman they come across two female dwarfs (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach) who bring out both the best and worst in one another. Comedy is meant to be elicited from how much the dwarfs really dislike one another and while this supplies a few laughs most of the comedy comes from what feels like largely improvised moments between Frost and Brydon. In short, Hemsworth is largely worthy but does little to make his performance notable and his romantic pairing with Chastain is more or less good enough if not exactly on fire. For me, Chastain and Blunt clearly have the most interesting and meaty roles to play here with their characters interlaced in a way that deception and progression work for and against each of them. Blunt adds large amounts of camp to a rather ridiculous and simple-minded character while Chastain comes away as the MVP offering a compelling performance in the film's most complex character arc.
And so, is “The Huntsman: Winter's War” actively bad? No, not really. It's a slick studio product that gives former visual effects supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (who worked on the first film) an opportunity to direct a big budget franchise vehicle and test his ability for future filmmaker-for-hire projects that will likely fall into similar territory. It gives Theron an opportunity to return to one of her more memorable and fun characters that she again takes full advantage of here, and at the very least it is a vehicle by which strong female actors are granted the opportunity to play certain roles they might not find readily accessible in their average work year. Still, that the story fails to connect or even bring something cohesive and complete to the table is disappointing. There are plenty of facets where this unique prequel/sequel situation could have bucked the trends of its predecessors, but rather Mazin and Spiliotopoulos make many underwhelming choices. There is a glaring example of such in the second act that is so obvious as to what the truth of the matter is that it's a shame the writers don't assume their audience is smart enough to figure it out and pass over what feels like an obligatory narrative beat in order to extend the running time that might have relieved some of the tedium. Ideas that are hinted at, but never fulfilled deal largely in the amount of wasted life that is put through the motions in Freya's kingdom. It seems there is nothing to do in this well designed kingdom but rule and start war, but when looking at it from a certain perspective there is plenty of material to pull from a psyche that attempts to leverage all under her command for the sake of her own soul and sanity. The repercussions of such actions on the young that Freya recruits should come through in both Eric and Sara, but they largely seem unscathed by being ripped from their homes other than the issue of them not being able to be with one another. Rather than exploring any of these potential outlets the film sticks to its "love conquers all" theme that ultimately explains why our villain and therefore the movie as a whole feels elementary and thus hardly compelling.