In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like Legend, Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.
A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.
Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.