It’s been a long journey to the box office for The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the follow-up to 2012’s Snow White and The Huntsman. Despite grossing a solid $396 million worldwide, it took Universal Pictures nearly two years to announce a sequel – perhaps it was the first film’s colossal $170 million production budget that had executives dragging their feet on another installment. The news that Kristen Stewart would not be reprising her role and the last-minute departure of director Frank Darabont did little to instill confidence, but the addition of Emily Blunt – hot off her role in Edge of Tomorrow – gave the project a much-needed boost.
Two years after filming began, Charlize Theron’s star has risen considerably thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road, while Blunt was showered with acclaim for her role in last year’s Sicario, and returning star Chris Hemsworth has another Avengers film under his belt. It would seem that The Huntsman: Winter’s War has the ingredients to replicate the success of the first film, but unfortunately it lacks a key component – namely, a decent script.
Opening long before the events of Snow White, we learn that Ravenna (Theron) has a sister named Freya (Blunt), another sorceress whose power has long been dormant. The tragic loss of her child sends Freya over the edge, with her abilities manifesting in frightful – and familiar – fashion, “turning the green fields of the north into a frozen wasteland” and retreating to an icy palace, which sounds suspiciously similar to another recent fairy tale about two sisters, one of which has the power to control… oh, nevermind.
Freya begins kidnapping children from all over the kingdom and training them to become warriors, with Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) emerging as her most elite prospects, the best of her “huntsmen” – a curious title, since they seem to do very little hunting and count several female members among their ranks. When Eric and Sara break their queen’s cardinal rule by falling in love, the punishment is severe – and then we fast-forward to sometime after the events of the previous film have occurred, because The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a prequel AND a sequel.
Ravenna has been vanquished, but her magic mirror (which more closely resembles a gong than a looking glass) is poisoning the minds of everyone who gazes into it. Tasked with locating the mirror before Freya can retrieve it and use its power to conquer the remnants of her sister’s kingdom, Eric teams up with a quartet of dwarves – only one of whom is a returning member of the original cast – and his former flame to track down the mystical artifact. We never learn why the mirror is so integral to Freya’s plan – after all, she’s been able to conquer just about every other land on her own, so what does the mirror bring to the table?
Granted, that’s just one of many unanswered questions in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and there’s no amount of analysis that will cause the pieces of this puzzle to suddenly arrange themselves into a coherent plot. All you really need to know is that Ravenna makes a comeback, which allows Charlize Theron another opportunity to dress in outlandishly elegant costumes and gleefully devour the scenery. In the grand scheme of things Theron doesn’t get much screen time, but she revels in being deliciously and unapologetically evil, milking every moments for its maximum potential.
Blunt, on the other hand, turns in the most wooden and lifeless performance of her career as a more sinister version of Frozen‘s Elsa, if she happened to have Lady Gaga’s fashion sense. There’s probably an argument to be made that Blunt’s complete lack of emotion is a defining part of her character, but even at moments where the script explicitly calls for a more passionate response, Blunt fails to deliver. Sure, she looks stunning in the lavish ball gowns and diamond-encrusted facemasks that could be leftover props from Eyes Wide Shut, but we’re never invested in Freya’s story enough to be moved by anything she says or does.
Hemsworth’s natural charisma goes a long way toward making this film bearable, and he actually shares some decent chemistry with Chastain, even if their relationship feels eerily similar to another pair of star-crossed lovers – one with red hair – from Game of Thrones. There are some enjoyable action scenes, but some of the film’s major set pieces – a raid on a goblin camp, and a throne room showdown with Ravenna – are marred by an over-reliance on CGI. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan was the visual effects supervisor on the original film, and he does a nice job of recreating the same style, but the sub-par quality on many of the effects shots indicates that he may have been hampered by a smaller budget this time around.
Questions, concerns and complaints notwithstanding, I wouldn’t go so far as to declare The Huntsman: Winter’s War an unpleasant experience. Hemsworth deftly carries the bulk of the adventure with his smirk and his charm, and Theron’s exuberantly evil queen is almost worth the price of admission on her own. The film does very little to justify its own existence, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements that we can’t enjoy, even if the whole thing is a bit of a confusing and confounding mess.