Even though there didn’t seem to be much demand for a grim and gritty take on Snow White, 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman proved successful enough to warrant a prequel/sequel hybrid that is The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Of course, this continuation of the 2012 film starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White all takes place without the either the actress or the character of Snow White, instead focusing on Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is not an awful movie, nor is it a good movie. It just simply is. This is two hours of bizarrely entertaining nonsense, an oddly compelling movie that falls just short of being a future cult classic.
After a montage reminds us of the events in the previous film, we’re greeted to narration provided by Liam Neeson. The Irish brogue of Neeson takes back to a time before the events of the first film, when Ravenna (Charlize Theron) commits regicide over a game of chess and ascends to the throne. Meanwhile, her sister Freya (Emily Blunt) is the midst of a forbidden love triangle, and she is pregnant with the child of her lover. Before Freya is to marry her beau in secret, she finds that her lover has torched their newborn baby, catching him standing over the charred crib with a torch in his hand. In case the last film didn’t make it abundantly clear, this fairy tale isn’t really intended for young children.
After the death of her child, Freya ascends to a throne of her own, becoming the Ice Queen. She assembles an army and razes villages, kidnapping the children and training them to become her own personal army. The Ice Queen tells her subjects, “In my kingdom there is but one law: Do not love.” Two children that have grown into her finest soldiers are Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), only they break the queen’s one law and secretly marry each other after a steamy love-making session in some hot springs. Following a fight with the Queen’s henchmen, the lovers are separated with Eric believing that Sara is dead. This, mind you, is just the setup for The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
Seven years later, Ravenna has been vanquished by Snow White and the Huntsman, with Snow White becoming queen. We’re told by Snow White’s army that she has fallen ill and the magic mirror from the first film has gone missing. With the help of two dwarves, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), the Huntsman must obtain the magic mirror and help the ailing Snow White. On their journey, Eric reunites with the totally alive Sara, though they have conflicting stories of what happened seven years prior which causes distrust between the former lovers. Also joining the adventuring posse are the dwarves Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). All are in search of the mirror, the mystical MacGuffin at the heart of the film.
There’s no real through line in the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. The characters move from scene to scene where they encounter some odd stuff that usually over-explained with deadening exposition, and the outcomes to a vast majority of the scenarios are painfully obvious. The magic mirror at the center of the story is incredibly ill-defined, meaning it can do anything at any given time for no real reason besides it has to. Though it doesn’t always work, the comic relief by the dwarves keeps the film pretty breezy, and it is nice seeing Rob Brydon in a big budget Hollywood movie.
And yet in its best moments, The Huntsman just kind of works anyways, but not always for the intended reasons. A remarkably inconsistent accent from Jessica Chastain are pretty consistently captivating, if only because Chastain can typically nail accents (See: Crimson Peak). Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic presence is used in one scene to convince a child how to disguise their feelings in order to live a life of subjugation as a soldier. It should be funny, but it comes as across as darkly comic. Odd performances from both Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt, with the former often being (unintentionally) funnier than the comic relief.
First-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan gets promoted from his role as second unit director on the previous film, but shows little feel for running the show. The action is woefully poor in its choreography and assembly, with sometime there only being one competent shot in an entire bewildering sequence. Had the action filmmaking craft of The Huntsman been slightly elevated, this film could’ve possibly been a kind of wonderful oddity. Nicolas-Troyan never even attempts to present any forms of parallel action. Right before the climactic battle, two of the dwarves go off on a mission and we don’t see them again until the battle’s conclusion. There’s a complete inability to build tension or suspense when it should matter most.
The fantasy genre always runs the risk of being odd or incomprehensible, but even the audacious failures that live on in cult immortality stay committed to their worlds of insanity. Sadly, The Huntsman: Winter’s War doesn’t go all the way with its insanity, attempting too often to pander to conventionality with far too many predictable story beats. Watching good actors dabble in camp in a bizarrely constructed fantasy is still fairly entertaining, and The Huntsman is no different. If only The Huntsman: Winter’s War were brazen enough to follow through on its craziest elements, I think I just might’ve remembered it tomorrow.