It is a long accepted truth that Snow White must always get the prince at the end of her story. But in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, it’s inarguable that whatever your thoughts of the film are, it actually did not belong to the girl with raven hair. How could it when Charlize Theron was slithering around the set like a serpent, oozing the kind of sex and malevolence that went out of fashion with Caligula?
So of course if there had to be a sequel—such as this weekend’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War—giving the real star of that 2012 gothic camp-fest the spotlight was about the smartest thing Universal could do. Throwing in Emily Blunt as her polar bear-riding, ice queen sister is also only a chilly bonus, shameless Frozen rip-off though it may be (the movie also borrows plentifully from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games too!).
Alas then, sweet princesses, you sisters of insidiousness: despite a pair of movie-stealing stars who gleefully chew their scenery and shoot one another side-eye like they’re in a big screen remake of Dynasty, Huntsman‘s new war makes the same mistakes as the old one. Where once Kristen Stewart’s earnestness distracted from Theron’s ferocious fun, there still remains Chris Hemsworth, appearing game to mug his way through his secondary franchise alongside the newly added Jessica Chastain. But while maintaining a feminine hero on the side of the angels, especially one played by an actress of Chastain’s caliber, is admirable and necessary, these films are too enamored with their sirens’ villainous call for petty ideas like virtue to matter. Such schlocky entertainment should have known by now that the devil, and this franchise’s appeal, lies in the details.
Hence the movie’s first major problem: this part-prequel and part-sequel truly does belong to its namesake, a hunky slice of blandness that, no matter how winning his smile may be, cannot overcome the shadow of his three leading ladies and a storybook plot every bit as perfunctory as its first installment—but now also completely devoid of the Brothers Grimm infrastructure to maintain something resembling a pace.
In that familiar and classic fairy tale’s place is the origin and legendary journeys of Hemsworth’s Eric. Surprisingly, it all began faintly similar to a recent Disney phenomenon when he was but a boy. In that time, his kingdom was ruled by the eternally young and power-hungry Queen Ravenna (Theron). But in one of her apparently earliest widowings, she also kept the counsel of the kind-hearted and younger sister Freya (Blunt), a potential sorceress who rejects the family business until her fiancé murders their infant daughter in the crib. He insists he was compelled to do so (20 Florins to the commenter who can guess by whom).
Enraged, Freya’s heart permafrosts over until it is literally as cold as ice. Embracing her inner-enchantress, she lets go of all inhibition to become an ice queen by conquering a neighboring kingdom and turning all that is green into a pale sheet of white. Then to replace the child she lost, Freya kidnaps all her subjects’ children, brainwashing them to be her warrior huntsmen and to never trust love. Hence when Eric and Sara (Chastain) grow up and have a secret, steamy bathtub marriage (don’t ask), Freya is a wee bit upset and separates the young lovers… precipitating Eric’s path into the previous Snow White movie, and thus giving him a motivation to take on Freya again over the course of the rest of Winter’s War, which sees Eric return home just as Freya is about to resurrect Ravenna from the dead.
If it sounds busy, that is because it is juggling more magical narratives than an afternoon of LARP-ing. And honestly, that is much of what the middle of the movie feels like. As Eric and Sara go on the quest to retrieve Ravenna’s mirror, they spend a lot of time wandering through enchanted forests and chatting with whom I assume must be the comic relief of accompanying dwarves (a returning Nick Frost plus Rob Byrdon, Sheridan Smith, and Alexandra Roach). But to suggest these leisurely strolls amount to generic dialogue and serviceable CGI goblin-battling would be a slight on the truly plain digital donnybrooks of most other fantasy adventures.
Much of the heroes’ screen time feels more reminiscent of the kind of listless hiking that made up entire sections of syndicated ‘90s fantasy shows like Xena and Hercules. The stunts are admittedly competent, and Chastain especially seems to be enjoying the spectacle of franchise moviemaking, but the smallness of Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin’s scripted story shrinks the intended epic nature of this crusade to the kind that would fit nicely between Saturday afternoon commercial breaks. First-time feature length director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan also adds little to the proceedings other than framing the special effects to maximum effect in an otherwise impotent story.
Yet, these many, many shortcomings remain odd considering how much potential the film has whenever Theron and Blunt are onscreen, which is seriously not enough. Aye, Theron appears with a classically curled lip in about seven scenes since her character spends the majority of the picture dead (due to the events o the previous film). Blunt gets to show off better with a wonderfully detached sense of camp to her chilliness, wearing her heavy and ice-weighted gowns with great pageantry, but she is still second fiddle to the heroes.
A better film might have dispensed with such distractions and realized the story could come alive if it immediately began with Freya resurrecting Ravenna, and then getting out of the way as these two actresses worked their magic with the silly material. But unfortunately, the real stars of the picture are kept mostly in the margins until the third act, and by then whatever guilty pleasure to be had here has been too long denied. There is a gonzo nutjob movie in here somewhere about two divas going medieval. Sadly, they too easily let it go.