The Huntsman: Winter's War
2016, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Sope Dirisu, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sam Claflin.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 22, 2016
Not so much a sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman as a sandwich, this spin-off begins before the first film’s action, then leapfrogs to seven years after it. Snow White figures in here in name only – actress Kristen Stewart wasn’t invited back to the party, I guess – but we do reunite with the titular Huntsman (turns out his name is Eric), played as before with brawny, cocky cool by Chris Hemsworth. Snow White’s villainess, Ravenna (Theron) returns, too, joined by a new character – her sweet little sis, Freya (Blunt), who taps into her own evil urges after she gets burned by a lover. Now an ice queen who’s frigid to love – this movie is nothing if not on the nose – Freya heads north, grooms an army of children to become an elite fighting force, and schools them in steeling their hearts against, well, their hearts: “Do not love. It’s a sin, and I’ll not forgive it.” Despite Queen Freya’s orders, young huntsman Eric and a sharpshooter named Sara (Chastain) trade hungry looks that swiftly progress to more than just undressing with their eyes; their rule-breaking love sets the course for the rest of the film. (A note to parents: There’s a lot more boning here than you’d expect from a fairy tale-sourced story, and though the film cuts around the nudie bits, you should prepare yourself for a post-movie conversation about what consenting adults do when their clothes come off.)
Tagging in for Rupert Sanders, first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan was previously nominated for an Oscar for his work as visual effects supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman, and justifiably so: The effects work was outstanding. But it was in service of a complete, breath-catching vision of this storybook land, each frame thrumming with energy, and complemented by an ambitious script that didn’t always hit the mark but certainly had original ideas.
But this follow-up is flat, prosaic. The effects don’t have the same splendor, or terrifying menace, as the original. The second half's quest plot suffers from one unmemorable set-piece after another. The actors are all game, but the job’s beneath them – Hemsworth, a pro, and a real champ at faking enthusiasm for this dud; Theron, still doing camp but this time with no tempering complexity or empathy; Blunt, stuck playing a frost-bitten Mommie Dearest; and the digitally diminished “dwarves,” who get the best laughs with their bickering but suffer repeated jokes confusing dwarves with children – a tin-eared running gag from scripters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, considering the already-dubious decision (carried over from the first film) to not cast actual little people in the roles.
“Predictable” is maybe a weird complaint to throw at a modernized fairy tale, the very nature of which is to traffic in well-worn tropes. But there is the kind of familiarity that feels epic – worth revisiting because the material is so rich, and so ripe for riffing on. And then there is the kind of familiarity that just feels tired, and sad, and factory-engineered. The Huntsman misses epic by a long mile, and no amount of Hemsworth’s obliging smiles can close that distance.