Winter Peters Out
The Huntsman: Winter's War
Who is the key character of Snow White? Considering her name is in the title, and ostensibly it's her story, one would think that Snow White is the key character of Snow White's story, and all stories around her. Can you really have a Snow White adventure without the main character herself? Sure, plenty of adaptations have put more emphasis on the evil step-mother, largely because she can be given depth outside the lines of what's in the fairy tale, and plenty of women enjoy the scenery-chewing that comes with the role, but Snow White still needs to be in her own world, right?
Hollywood, at least once, argued otherwise. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and released by Universal Pictures, The Huntsman: Winter's War, makes the argument that, at least for Snow White and the Huntsman, it was Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman that was the key element of the story. And sure, in a way their right: it's never a bad thing to have more Chris Hemsworth in the world. Snow White was boring in that movie, Eric the Huntsman was less so. But to build an entire film round him while ignoring the character we all originally came for feels like a bridge too far.
You can tell that the writers for the film struggled with that very issue as well. To give us a Snow White without Snow White they had to bend themselves in all kinds of loops to make it work. Snow had to be possessed by evil magic and put out of commission. Then they had to give reason for Eric to venture off on his own, while resurrecting the villain from the first film, Charlize Theron's Ravenna, all while putting some other villain into the film to tie in more fairy tales, and add more mythology, and more characters, and more... well, it's just more along with more, and a dash of more. It's too much without actually amounting to anything. If Universal was hoping they could create an entire Huntsman cinematic universe, they seriously misjudged how far they could stretch the concept.
The film opens in a seriously extended flashback. First it has to tell us about Ravenna, back when she was alive and conquering kingdoms, joined by her sister, Freya (Emily Blunt). Where Ravenna is a blood-thirsty empress, Freya is a sweet and kind woman. Freya has a beau that she loves, and she's carrying his child, a situation that Ravenna doubts will end well. And, a few months later, that bears out when the beau breaks into the castle and burns their baby alive. This casts Freya into such grief that she suddenly taps into her latent magic, unleashing a powerful blast of ice magic, and unwittingly becoming the Snow Queen. Naturally she moves to the far north to build her palace of ice and create her army.
This army, as it turns out, would be trained from the ground up as kids. Capturing all the children of the kingdom, Freya has them trained to be huntsman, elite warrior and killers. Her only rule: don't fall in love as love is against the law. But Eric (played as a child by Conrad Khan before Hemsworth re-assumes the role) only has eyes for Sara (played as a child by Niamh Walter, as an adult by Jessica Chastain), the best female huntsman trainee. They eventually fall in love and, in secret, are married, all with the plan to escape the Snow Queen and be together. But the Snow Queen catches wind and sics the other huntsmen on our young lovers. They fight, Sara seemingly is killed, and Eric is wounded and cast into a river, presumed dead.
As we know, though, Eric isn't dead (as he had that adventure in Snow White and the Huntsman that took place after this extended intro). Instead he's spent the last seven years pining for his dead wife, living the life of a solo huntsman for his new queen, Snow White. But trouble brews when the magic mirror of the dead queen, Ravenna, starts spreading its dark magic around. Snow send the mirror away, but her own men become befouled by it and kill each other. Eric and his band, including dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) alongside his seemingly back from the dead wife, Sara, have to track down the mirror and stash it where it can't be found ever again... that is, unless Freya gets to it first.
This film is needlessly over-stuffed. Having an adventure about the mirror, which somehow in the end resurrects Ravenna (a detail spoiled by the trailers for the movie so I feel no need to not divulge it here) is fine. It's a solid way to bring back the villainess for another go round. Having her fight only Eric, and not Snow White as well, is a little weird as Ravenna seems to hold a lot of rage for Eric when Snow White was the one to kill her, but hey, a battle against good and evil is fine all on its own. Where the film fails is in trying to cram everything else in this story into the script.
Did we really need a second sister in this family? She wasn't mentioned in the first film, at all, and we were supposed to assume (from that movie) that the only surviving members of Ravenna's clan were Ravenna herself and her brother (who died in the previous film). The movie goes out of its way to not only shoehorn in another sister, but then it has to create this elaborate back story for her to justify her existence. The film spends ten minutes just on this story, about her and her baby, before we then jump to her creating an army and spending another fifteen or so minute there. All told, the entire first act is spend on flashbacks and back stories and we don't even get to the actual plot of the film until the second act.
One would think, then, that Freya would be the villain of the piece. Yes, except for a villain she's surprisingly absent from her own film. Credit where its due to the first movie, we regularly check in with Ravenna and her evil dealings while Snow and Eric flee from her evil. Here, though, once Freya is introduced, we spend the entire second act focused on Eric, the dwarves, and Sara. Freya becomes a concept we're supposed to fear but she never really presents herself as a real threat during the whole middle of the movie. The mirror, and the threat of Ravenna's power, becomes the only thing we're concerned with. The movie splits its focus and, thus, lacks the ability to really make either villain truly a threat.
Bear in mind that after the intro for Freya where Ravenna is a bit part, she doesn't show up again until she's somehow unleashed, by Freya, from the mirror. The third act then becomes a battle of wills between Freya and Ravenna, with Eric and his band kind of on the outside of everything that matters. The actions of Eric don't really matter as the battle of sisters takes over, but we barely had either sister in the film leading up to this, so the movie bends over itself trying to come up with ways to make each of these characters more important, in the moment, than anything in the story could justify. In essence, the film doesn't know what it wants to be.
I think the struggle comes from the fact that to make a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman you had to either have Snow White or the Huntsman in there. Due to issues on the previous film between Snow White performer Kristen Stewart and that film's director Rupert Sanders, Stewart was not asked back for this sequel. Hemsworth had to be given the lead, but in all matters he's a side character to everything going on. He's not directly connected to Ravenna because it was Snow White who killed her (and who battled with her for the fate of the kingdom). He's really connected to Freya has he was cast out of her kingdom and basically went off to live a happy life without her. Ravenna and Freya have a strong connection, but both a relegated out of the movie for long stretches meaning neither of them can be the protagonist. In its current form the film just doesn't work.
And, frankly, the film does little service to the new heavy it adds in: Freya. I love Emily Blunt as a performer. She's regal and amazing and can play anything at all. She almost saves the terrible Mary Poppins Returns through sheer force of will alone. You can tell she cares about Freya as a character and wans her to work, but the film gives her so little screen time that even Blunts magnetic performance does little to save this movie. The film wastes Freya and her performer and that's a real shame.
As I noted, there were ways this could have been salvaged. If the whole first act were ditched (because we don't need all this back story) that could give more time to Eric and Ravenna. That would be that (a) Freya isn't in this movie, but that's nit big deal as the film wastes her anyway. It also means that (b) Sara isn't in this film, but considering she was already dead in the first movie and has to be retconned back in, very awkwardly and with a lot of unnecessary exposition, I don't feel like that's any big loss. Better to put the attention where it needs to be, on our characters from the first film.
What could have been done, instead, was the film could send Eric and the dwarves off after the mirror, like in the second act here. They go on a long quest to grab it, but some of Ravenna's old agents find the mirror first (or steal it from Eric and the gang) and take it back to one of Ravenna's old castles. There they resurrect her and Ravenna then plots and schemes how to restore her full power. Eric and the dwarves have to hatch a plan to infiltrate the castle, figure out what's going on and, in the end, stop Ravenna. It's tight, it's focused, and its an easy 90 minutes that doesn't overstay its welcome.
I suppose there is also a movie that could have been made from Freya and Ravenna. Do the Freya back story, have her go all Snow Queen and move north, but instead of trying to shoehorn in Eric and his band, we don't even delve into her making her "huntsmen". Instead she terrorizes her kingdom while pining for the child she lost. She hears about the mirror, sends her men to steal it, and puts it in a place of honor in her castle. Someone, man or woman, comes along and worms their way into her heart as, all the while, the mirror whispers to her darker thoughts. It becomes a battle of wills for Freya between the half that's melting from being exposed to someone that loves her, and the other half that is corrupted by Ravenna and her darkness. Eventually Ravenna escapes the mirror and Freya has to either choose her sister or choose love. She chooses love and defeats Ravenna, stopping the golden threat once and for all.
I don't know if either of these possible movies are great but they're both certainly better than smashing all of it together into a single, overly-plotted two hours. It's a lot of story condensed into a single movie, but when you extract them out what you see is that both plots are threadbare on their own. That's likely why they were mooshed together, to try and make on theatrical length film. Maybe both of these should have just been 60-minute direct-to-video animated releases. That might have solved all the problems without making such a terminal theatrical snore.
Regardless, The Huntsman: Winter's War is a terrible film. It's elevated by decent performances, yes, with Hemsworth, Frost, Chastain, and Blunt doing what they can with this material that's both underwritten and overwritten at the same time. But a few solid performances can't pick up a film utterly littered with bad decisions. Any number of changes might have fixed some of this film's shortcomings but, end of the day, the studio really wanted a Snow White without Snow White, and the resulting mess was what they got. The best solution probably would have been no sequel at all.