In 2012, I remember walking out of the theater absolutely astonished by the audacity of Snow White and The Huntsman. It was not your typical live action Disney adaptation, in fact, it seemed to head off in the opposite direction. Snow White and The Huntsman boasted an antagonist with a fully fleshed out backstory, a female protagonist who relied very little on the men around her, and a dark and unforgiving tone that refused to pull any punches. I loved every minute of it. Finally! A fairy tale movie that allowed for some gray area!
I was elated when they announced a sequel was in development and fell head-over-heels when the cast was announced....OK, well...I was excited at first, then I got a little creeped out. I was convinced Universal had been reading my journal or something. I probably watched the trailer 15 times in a row when it first dropped. Blunt turning her enemies to ice, Theron's evil laugh, Chastain twirling elven daggers around, and Hemsworth jumping off the roof of a fortress all set to Halsey's haunting "Castle"? It really doesn't get any better than that. With arguably the best female ensemble I've seen and those Oscar nominated special effects and costume design, I was convinced it would be nothing short of amazing. I was wrong. It was not amazing. It was "fine", maybe even "good."
There has been some confusion about the plot of this film because it is both a prequel and a sequel, so let me help you out here. Freya (Emily Blunt) is the kind-hearted little sister of Charlize Theron's diabolical Ravenna. She wants nothing more than to bear the child of her lover, the Duke of Blackwood (Colin Morgan) and get married. But there are forces at work who do not wish to see Freya live happily ever after, and when tragedy strikes, it freezes her heart and unleashes a dangerous power from within her. Freya becomes The Ice Queen. She storms the countryside laying waste to villages and kidnapping children- raising them as an army. Her kingdom's only law? Love is forbidden. The child leaders of the army grow up (rather handsomely, I might add) to be Chris Hemsworth's Eric and Jessica Chastain's Sara. They inevitably fall in love which Freya considers a grave betrayal so she separates them with a wall of ice. Shortly thereafter a title pops up on the screen that says "7 years later". The events of Snow White and The Huntsman happen in that time frame. The rest of the movie is a sequel and some key characters from the "past" are resurrected. Get it? Got it? Good.
Although the subject matter is just as dark as the first, The Huntsman: Winter's War has a much lighter tone due to both the purposeful comedic relief provided by a band of foul-mouthed dwarves, and the accidental lack of focus that makes most of the beautifully shot contests feel trivial. This issue could have been avoided had they stuck with director Rupert Sanders rather than hand the reigns of a 115 million dollar blockbuster to a freshman director (Cedric Nicolas-Troyan). However, directing this movie was no small task. A big budget wrap around narrative starring three award winning actresses and Thor himself? That's a lot of pressure for someone's first film. Nicolas-Troyan was the visual effects director of the first film and earned himself a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his brilliant work. Although he directed Winter's War, it seems his passion still lay with his former department and as a result, the thing that made the first film so fantastic- it's focus on character- was lost. However, there were some factions of critics and audiences who thought Snow White and The Huntsman was too dark and even slow at times. It's entirely possible that the studio wanted to go in a slightly different direction. I don't fault Nicolas-Troyan for making the film his own, I just wish there was more continuity within the franchise. Anyway, I suspect his more upbeat approach will end up appealing to a wider audience.
Rather than utilize the abilities of its stellar (and likely very expensive) cast, the narrative babied its audience, choosing to move the story forward through the musings of a liberally used narrator instead of its characters. Personally, the 3rd party intrusions took me out of the story, reminding me that I was in a movie theater rather than in the character's world.
Although they were fighting an uphill battle, the cast did the very best they could with what they had. Theron's screen time is surprisingly brief but as has become her M.O., she capitalized on every opportunity, reprising Ravenna with a ruthless vengeance. As I'm sure is the case in Theron's real life, she can vanquish a foe with a single look. Her presence demands the audience's undivided attention even before she speaks and when she does, it's the voice of a woman who relishes the opportunity to be delightfully over-the-top.
Chris Hemsworth is as charming as ever, easily slipping back in to The Huntsman's skin- maybe because he never shed it after the first go-around. His character is in a vastly different place from the first film. He's swapped his mange for a cleaner-cut look and is generally upbeat and agreeable. Ah, the power of love, right? The film makes sure to hammer that point home as often as it can. There is clearly chemistry between he and Chastain, the problem is the script fails to tease it out so while the actors clearly enjoy each others company, the development of the characters' relationship is a well-meaning, but ultimately disingenuous, rush job. An issue that can (again) be chalked up to poor writing and a freshman director. I still bought the love story, though. Ate it up, actually. Bonded by trauma, Eric and Sara are peers, friends and partners. The chemistry was convincing enough that I'm sure showing their burgeoning romance felt superfluous in a movie that needs to span roughly 30 years.
Chastain- playing Eric's "deceased" wife Sara- once again proves her incredible versatility. Ill-advised accent aside (which totally isn't that bad, by the way), Chastain proves she is a viable action star. An exemplary one, even. All things considered, her Sara was the most skilled and effective warrior in the film and she carries that capability with an inherent and graceful femininity. The knowledge that Chastain did most of her own stunts makes her performance even more satisfying. She proudly carries on Snow White's legacy, carrying the torch for standard-defying women one step further, refusing to be a damsel in distress.
Early on, fans were confused as to why Chastain would play the warrior and not Blunt, saying that it would make more sense for them to switch roles being that Chastain proved her capabilities as a villain in Crimson Peak. I was glad to see the casting director step slightly out of the box and refuse to typecast Blunt, who is known in Hollywood as one of the premier female action stars working today. Someway, somehow, Blunt helped Freya achieve a believable character ark without significant assistance from the script. Her performance is engrossing and she somehow manages to keep Freya endearing despite her cruel actions. Blunt's masterful delivery told the entire story of her character- the heartache, the pain, the anger and the sadness.
The Huntsman's biggest flaw is its marketing. The trailers, which are exceptional, unfortunately set the stage for a vastly different film than what it actually is. The movie is not about the battle of the two queens, it's mostly a story of love and perceived betrayal between Eric and Sara. Not that I'm complaining, I enjoyed Hemsworth and Chastain's scenes, it's just not quite the epic showdown promised in the trailers. At the end of the day, The Huntsman: Winter's War is visually magnificent and sets a good example for little girls who aim to be more than what Disney told them they could be. And by that I don't just mean strong. I mean forgiving, I mean spiteful, I mean angry, sad, loving, hurt, happy, and everything in between. The film stars three 3-dimensional female characters, and in a big-budget blockbuster, that truly is a significant achievement. It's fun, the action scenes are well-executed and the performances are solid. It's a "good" movie and a worthwhile sequel...but it's still not everything it could have been. As a fan, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as a critic, I'm torn.
Overall rating: 7/10
UPDATE: I just got home from seeing it a second time, and I'm so happy I did. This time I wasn't distracted by my expectations and was able to actually take it in rather than write my review in my head.
I THOROUGHLY enjoyed it. Upon my second viewing, I have raised my overall score to an 8/10. What a blast! An EXCELLENT popcorn movie.