The Huntsman: Winter’s War suffers from colon-movie spina bifida. Its curvy backbone veers near and far to collect the disparate parts necessary in making this part of a larger cinematic universe. In this case, that universe is Universal Picture’s Snow White, a bleak fairy tale retold with undeniable visual style and largely charmless aplomb in 2012 with an aggressively apathetic Kristen Stewart at the forefront and a scenery-smacking, mean-mugging Chris Hemsworth as her side piece. Putting his considerable beef to good use as the movie’s romantic tine/battle-weary whetting stone to slide K-Stew’s frosty edge against, Hemsworth proved a fleeting flash of joy in an otherwise grim and grimly serious saga. His burly Eric however hardly seemed an intriguing (or popular) enough character to stage a spin-off upon but if The Huntsman is proof of anything, it’s that adding a hefty scoop of Jessica Chastain, a dollop of dwarves and a much more tongue-in-cheek approach to this whole fairy tale thing may be just the spoonful of medicine the script doctor called for.
Surely The Huntsman cannot abate generic fantasy-adventure narrative tropes occasionally lackluster CG (a natural side effect of its lessened production budget) and an unfortunate connection to its brooding predecessor but somehow – as if by dark magic itself – manages to overcome such considerable hurdles with a standout troop of actors proffering unlikely winning performances, a shockingly likable second act and an overwhelmingly infectious comedic bent. By no means is it a must-see entry into the oeuvre of family-friendly fantasy adventure flicks (nor will it have but a sniff of the critical or box office success that Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book has been rightfully treated to) but those who appreciate a good light-hearted, Lord of the Rings-aping romp through mystical kingdoms might find themselves strangely delighted by what The Huntsman has to offer.
Following the Rupert Sanders-Kristen Stewart infidelity scandal that broke upon the release of the first film, this quasi sequel/prequel went through bouts of development hell, a teeter-totter slugfest likely responsible for The Huntsman’s most sizeable narrative welts. Sanders was not set to return – cheating on your wife with the star of your film will have that effect – while Stewart was slated to step back into the iconic princess shoes under the direction of lauded horror director Frank Darabont (The Mist, The Walking Dead). Some months later, both talents left the project, leaving it to transform into this spin-off-esque continuation of Chris Hemsworth’s titular Huntsman that stirs the Grimm Brother’s Snow Queen lore into its filmic blizzard. Which brings us to the odd-Frankenstein’s monster that is The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
The movie begins on unpromising footing with an uncredited Liam Neeson applying his gruffest baritone to narrate the historic mythology of what shall eventually become Snow White’s kingdom. Before she is smote by SW’s blade, the evil beauty Ravenna (Charlize Theron) rules her domain with younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt in a bad wig) at her side. When that pesky mirror mirror on the wall of hers later warns Ravenna that her little sis is preggo with a baby that’s totally gonna be cuter than her (and Ravenna hates nothing more than those cuter than her), the crib-napping baby is “mysteriously” burned up by her own daddy. Talk about bleak. We’re five minutes in and babies are already immolating in their cradles. None the wiser that something Shakespearean sinister is obviously going on, Freya kills her baby daddy by breaking out some serious Frozen powers (another story riffing on “The Snow Queen”), which span freezing anything she touches to the ability to ride polar lion-bear things to making terribly unconvincing CGI ice walls to being able to manipulate what is seen through said ice. Or something to that effect. Freya cancels love (making it illegal across her kingdom) and decides that if she can’t raise a child, she would “raise an army.” If you can make the logic jump from one decision to another, you’re ahead of the curve.
Freya assembles a young Thor (er Eric) and all the other children she can collect from across the land, recruiting their impressionable minds and supple bodies to harden into an army of unstoppable Huntsman. Amongst the top recruits is Sara (Chastain) who’s sharp with an arrow and tots ends up hooking up with a topless Hemsworth in a hot tub when they’re adults. One rushed marriage later and the two top-class warriors plot to abscond together out from under the wicked will of the frigid Freya. Naturally, Freya catches wind of their plan through her ice owl (add controlling ice owls to the growing list of Freya’s powers) and has J-Chas stabbed through the heart and Hemsworth thrown into an icy river. Which obviously is a much less effective means of killing someone than, say, stabbing them through the heart.
This vapid stupidity and grim self-importance melts away when things traverse seven years to the future, now after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, and we find Hemsworth is well and good, chilling beneath a tree, honing his Nutflix and chill. The mirror has gone missing and SW wants Hemsworth to sack up and move out before it falls into the wrong hands and everything goes tits up. Enter a collection of dwarf companions (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) who enliven the scene ferociously and the return of J-Chas (not a spoiler cuz it’s in the trailer) who add much needed energy, wit and life to the enfolding walkabout.
One might consider it ironic that under the tutelage of first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who’s spent years serving as a visual effects supervisor, that the shots that work best are those devoid of special effects. When Frost, Brydon and Roach exchange licks, the picture soars. Their verbal sparring is off-the-cuff and acidic, brewed with the improvised salt of seasoned comics. And even though Hemsworth and Chastain are saddled with some inelegant lines, courtesy of a script from Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules with Dwayne Johnson) and Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 4), they sell the emotions lurking beneath the words on the page because, well, it’s Jessica Chastain and Captain McSmug Beefcake himself.
Colleen Atwood returns to the costume department after being nominated for her work on the original three years back and her work is as decadent and resplendent as ever. Her craft rides a fine line between being gaudy and awe-striking and nothing speaks to this more than the garish cut of the dueling queen’s jib. As Ravenna, Theron proves how brilliant her initial casting was as the golden hottie bitch queen, taking her depiction of the iconoclast villainess to black-goo-seeping extremes, while Blunt makes a welcome addition to this shockingly impressive cast though her character lacks the grift or gall to make her truly despicable and therefore memorable. Her character is a contrivance of convenience, one who makes major tacks from but fair weather breezes. An ideological showdown betwixt the sisters gives her some purpose but cannot escape a feeling of too little, too late. It’s only when CG creatures crop up to clutter the frame that one is reminded of The Huntsman‘s lackluster “broad appeal” intentions. That the culminating (and entirely requisite) storm of CG is much less interesting than the mighty familial feuds swirling within it shows how misunderstood (and oddly awesome) this fairy tale flubber can be.
CONCLUSION: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’ will cast a spell on all those it encounters but its uneasy recipe of dash dull CG action to heaping scoop of zesty dwarf comedy makes it unusually palatable and even at times frightfully entertaining. Far better than its predecessor, this odd-duck pre/s/equel benefits massively from its high caliber casting and Nicolas-Troyan’s willingness to let his performers go to the nines.