The movie may function fourfold as a prequel, sequel, spinoff and quasi-remake to the highly budgeted slice of fantasy dreck that was 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s surprisingly hard to hate The Huntsman: Winter’s War. That’s not to say it’s a good movie – it manifestly is not – but what director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin have wrought is a deeply weird, definitely unnecessary, and frequently entertaining piece of popcorn programming, one that – while existing purely to further Universal’s franchise-first agenda – also possesses a wacky, oddball appeal that its morose predecessor never even attempted to harness.
This is another way of saying that you won’t marvel at anything in The Huntsman on an intellectual or even a cinematic level, but you might be surprised to find yourself appreciating its ridiculous antics and consummate messiness. The film never quite manages to hide the fact that, following up a movie no one liked much in the first place with a thoroughly contrived side-narrative, it’s offering little of interest in terms of story, but everyone involved just goes for it with such stupidly self-aware gusto that all the fractured-fairy-tale frivolity ends up feeling like a strength rather than a weakness.
At the center of it all is Chris Hemsworth, reprising the role of Eric the Huntsman with burly, back-slapping charm and a vaguely Scottish brogue. Last time around, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes took a marked backseat to the moping world-weariness of Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, so it’s relieving to see that this solo vehicle keeps the character’s energy and levity intact.
The Huntsman has a host of problems, many related to plot and pacing, but it doesn’t fall victim to the “grimdark” effect that’s plagued fairy-tale fantasies in recent years (see: Red Riding Hood, Maleficent). Even with infanticide, child soldiers, and some fairly lethal battle sequences all factoring into the story, the movie’s agreeably lighthearted, and a lot of that has to do with Hemsworth’s ability to make sparks fly with just about every other character on the screen.
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The Huntsman gets a leg up on its predecessor by giving him a love interest it’s possible to actually care about: fierce warrior Sara, played by Jessica Chastain with a wiry physicality and fearsome glare that just about overcome her amusingly ungainly accent. That’s where the dicey, decades-spanning (seriously) plot kicks in. We meet both Eric and Sara as “Huntsmen” in training; that is to say, as child soldiers enslaved by the brittle, bitter ice queen Freya (Emily Blunt), younger sister to the cartoonishly villainous Ravenna (Charlize Theron).
Through the clunky intervention of a never-seen narrator (Liam Neeson?!?!?), their backstory takes shape. Freya and Ravenna once ruled side by side, toppling kingdoms like dominos – until Freya, by far the more innocent and pure of the pair, fell in love with a betrothed Duke (Colin Morgan) and carried his child to term. One night, that baby was gruesomely burned alive in its crib, and the heartbroken Freya, believing the Duke responsible, lashed out, tapping into a previously unexpected affinity for frost and killing him. Her heart iced over, Freya set out to claim her own dominion, raising an army of child soldiers in place of her own young. Predictably, there’s only one rule in this ice kingdom: love is forbidden. “It’s a sin,” she decries, her voice appropriately cold and callous.
Of course, this is a fairy tale – matters of the heart come with the territory. And so Eric and Sara, the two best “Huntsmen” (why this is the name Freya chooses to give to her exceedingly un-woodsy military is a point that should probably be overlooked), fall for each other, stealing kisses in shadowy castle hallways and sneaking off for a nighttime round of hot-spring sex (the steamiest thing in a revisionist fairy tale since, well, the same exact situation went down in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters). Freya catches them though and makes Eric believe Sara has been killed before exiling him.
Here’s where things get a little trickier. Heartbroken but resigned, the Huntsman sets out on his own, and seven years pass, with the character stumbling into the plot of Snow White and the Huntsman at some point. Whatever happened in that movie happens here (Don’t look at me! All I can remember is that Ravenna was a particularly evil badass, and Snow White rode a horse while wearing armor), and The Huntsman picks up in the relative tranquility of Snow White’s kingdom.
There’s some vague mention that war is brewing, and that Snow White is unwell, before the MacGuffin of it all kicks in – Ravenna’s Magic Mirror, which is reimagined as a corrupting One Ring ornament capable of making its possessors turn on one another, has gone missing in the course of being carted away from Snow’s castle. Eric knows that, if it falls into Freya’s hands, she’ll be truly unstoppable – and so he sets out in pursuit, accompanied for flimsy plot reasons by two brother dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon).
It doesn’t take long for Eric to reunite with Sara, who’s recently escaped from Freya’s dungeon and is also looking to prevent the mirror from ending up in her icy clutches. From there, a quest narrative drives the proceedings, with two female dwarves (Alexandra Roach and a delightfully salty Sheridan Smith) coming along in search of goblin gold, and Eric working to tear down the obstacles that years of separation have created between him and Sara. Even with the mirror steadily getting closer to Freya’s domain, there’s plenty of time for them to melt each other’s armor.
What’s most glaringly obvious about the plot of The Huntsman: Winter’s War is how inconsequential it ultimately becomes. The appeal here isn’t getting invested in a fluid, coherent narrative (which is good, given that the story is neither of those things), but watching a cast of strong dramatic actors have a blast sinking their teeth into a cotton-candy blockbuster setup. Never mind that the whole story hinges on Freya being a power-hungry conqueror, despite political machinations beyond her own realm running counter to everything else we come to know about her. Never mind that Eric and Sara exercise superhuman abilities when the plot calls for it, only to find themselves powerless against some other opponents. And never mind that Ravenna, killed at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman, being written back to life reeks of a corporate mandate to make sure Theron would have a role. In the end, if trifling issues of logic and continuity really impair your ability to enjoy what’s on screen, this movie isn’t for you.
Instead, the film is a beautiful mess, filled with eye-catching visual effects work (especially in the third act, which features an epic brawl between the two sisters) and a heap of talented actors playing with genuinely fun characters. Hemsworth clearly adores his hero’s roguish derring-do, and he’s great in the part both physically and dramatically. Chastain, meanwhile, gets a role that does for the actress what Edge of Tomorrow did for co-star Emily Blunt. Even as her character’s motivations and backstory undergo odd shifts, Chastain injects a mettle and moxie all her own, turning Sara into the kind of ferocious woman-warrior type for whom you could easily imagine Universal green-lighting yet another spinoff.
That’s to say nothing of the baddies. As Freya, who’s essentially a meaner Elsa from Frozen with less vocal talents, Blunt aims to strike a curious balance between brittle vulnerability (her voice is faint and tremulous, her manner waifish) and woman-scorned fury, pulling it off entirely and almost stealing the movie out from under the rest of the cast. Freya is an often over-the-top villainness, at one point roaring “No fire!” at a cowering servant with such supernatural rage the camera shakes, but she’s rooted in a real pain that Blunt never short-changes. And once Theron is back in the picture as the scenery-chewing Ravenna, the sisters’ taut dynamic lights a much-needed fire under the gradually slowing proceedings. If Theron’s evil schemer was somewhat restrained in Snow White and the Huntsman, at least for a time, there’s none of that here, with the actress quickly ratcheting up the theatricality as high as possible. Her gumption proves endearing.
The same can be said of The Huntsman: Winter’s War as a whole. It’s a confusing, flashy, tonally slapdash spectacle of a movie, but a spectacle all the same, as well as one smart enough to embrace an intrinsically silly and strange approach. The whole thing unfolds in a mish-mash fantasy landscape too broadly defined to be interesting, with a story that’s so perfunctory it might have been completed on a napkin midway through production. But none of that diminishes the pleasure that can be found in watching the movie’s crop of committed thespians bounce off one another under a sheen of special effects just glitzy and goofy enough to dazzle.
There’s a certain kind of critic who’ll see this pic and groan about a bad line of dialogue or nonsensical plot point, and their issues with the movie will be valid. But they’d be better served to take a cue from the Disney-fied inspiration for Blunt’s antagonist and accept The Huntsman: Winter’s War for the daffy diversion it wants to be.