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Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt
Long before Snow White, evil sorceress Ravenna (Charlize Theron) has secretly slayed her husband king, becoming queen, and during the ceremony learns her younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt) has been having an illicit affair with the Duke of Blackwood (Colin Morgan). She’s even carrying his baby. Told by the Magic Mirror the infant will grow to be more beautiful than her, Ravenna takes action, and it’s not long after when Freya finds her newborn baby dead with Blackwood standing over the body. In a rage, her dormant powers emerge, and she kills her former lover with a shroud of ice. Distraught, Freya abandons the kingdom and travels north to build her own, kidnapping children along the way to be her army in the years to come.
Two of the children taken are Eric and Sara who grow up in the shadow of Freya’s one rule to harden their hearts. They train and become the kingdom’s greatest warriors (played as adults by Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain), secretly falling in love and vowing to be together. They plan to elope, but Freya has other plans, tricking them into thinking one has run away and the other is dead.
Seven years pass and in the interim, unseen (and covered in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman), Ravenna is destroyed and Freya becomes the only power to face Snow White’s army. Meanwhile, Ravenna’s Magic Mirror has been stolen while on route to “Sanctuary” and everyone wants to get their hands on it, including Eric and his fellowship of Dwarves who come upon an unexpected surprise.
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, it’s hard to know what The Huntsman: Winter’s War is trying to be or even why it exists. A fairy tale trying to be a quest adventure, it’s too tame to be taken seriously, and too heavy to be just for children. It wants to be timeless and epic but is short-sighted and surprisingly shallow. Moments that feel like they should be far grander are otherwise flat (a bridge scene leading to an enchanted goblin-infested land is almost comically undersized, with a span no more than fifteen feet across and a drop off half that depth.) It doles out one trope after another, somehow expecting us to be surprised, with none being so. As example, consider that bridge again. Eric and his companions are facing off against an attacking horde of toothy, fairy-tale goblin beasts with Eric standing on one side of the bridge and the others across the way. Instead of crossing the bridge (which he could do in about five strides) and cutting the ropes on the far side, he cuts the ropes on the near side, planning to sacrifice himself to allow them to escape. While that water is meant to be poison, there are trees on either side of the very narrow river that are nearly touching and all the goblins are approaching by swinging through the trees like chimpanzees. What’s the point of the bridge?
The film is all like this, exaggerated set pieces that are all undercooked. There is no wonder nor joy to the world these character live in and every conflict is spun from manipulation rather than context. The Huntsman: Winter’s War refuses to take any chances. The problems start right at the beginning when we listen to Liam Neeson (unseen) narrate a bit of prologue, though he keeps coming back well after we need him. Why is he talking to us? He describes literally what we are seeing. It’s because the filmmakers don’t trust the audience. But they also don’t seem to care. For instance, a lot of time passes but no one ages, so, fine, it’s a fairy tale, but it doesn’t give us any sense of scale. The efforts in place to separate, regroup, and create conflict between Eric and Sara are cumbersome, never really having any impact. And forget suspense. While some creatures to do look interesting, none have any weight (and some CGI is decidedly poor).
Still, the actors are having a good time, and there are moments when it seems they are in on a joke we aren’t aware of, especially Hemsworth who grins and smirks most of the way through. Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexander Roach
are the Dwarves, and obligatorily offer up the chortles because their Dwarves. That’s still a thing apparently. Blunt and Theron come off best, doing the best they can with these one-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, Freya, whose reasons for anguish are way too obvious, is bound by the script to blame someone else and then commit atrocities before having the inevitable, timely turn-around. It’s the very definition of transparent, like another character who is played up to be bad but you know is going to be good and finally turns so just when they are about to do something terrible but instead do the opposite. It’s not just cliché. It’s tiresome.
It might seem hard to believe, but this movie is missing Kristen Stewart. That says a lot about this film.