REVIEW: ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’ pretty to see, but little more

The Huntsman: Winter’s War on the surface has quite a bit in common with its predecessor, 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.

Stars Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Frost, and Sam Clafin reprise their previous roles, while Cedric Nicholas-Troyan, who supervised visual effects on the original, takes over full directorial duties.

But the similarities more or less end there. Lighter in tone and lavish in style and visual splendor, The Huntsman: Winter’s War attempts to parlay levity and romance for the gravity and darkness that distinguished the first film.

The effort results in a slightly more enjoyable film, but also one that lacks in any emotional depth or complexity.  It aims lower in terms of impact and appeal than the earlier film, with predictably mediocre results.

What’s it about?

The Huntsman: Winter’s War provides backstory for the titular Huntsman, Eric (Hemsworth) and evil Queen Ravenna (Theron).  It turns out that the two were, in fact, connected long before Eric helped Snow White dethrone Ravenna in the earlier tale.

That connection is Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s younger sister. Years before Ravenna usurped Snow White’s kingdom, Freya stood by her sister’s side as she conquered other kings and their lands, content to live without magic and without power of her own.

A terrible betrayal awakens magic within her, a power over cold and ice that she uses to craft her kingdom far from Ravenna’s. To protect herself and impose her will and law upon her conquered lands, Freya takes children from their homes and raises them as “huntsmen.” She calls them her children, and upon those children there is but one inviolate law: “Do not ever love.”

From among those first conscripted child soldiers two rise to the very top: Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain), whose skills with a bow and daggers make her even more formidable than Eric himself.  The pair, however, breaks Queen Freya’s one cardinal rule, leading to a tragic confrontation that leaves Eric the broken drunkard audiences first met in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Film Title: The Huntsman: Winter's War

Flash-forward to after Ravenna’s defeat at the hands of Snow White, the Huntsman, and their brave followers. The evil queen’s magic mirror, which still held power enough to infect even Snow White’s purity of spirit, goes missing.

Through her trusted friend, Prince William (Sam Clafin, The Hunger Games series), she asks Eric to find the mirror and take it far from her kingdom, where it cannot harm anyone else. But Freya has learned of its disappearance as well, and seeks to make its power her own.

Thus Eric, along with jovial dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) and his sourpuss brother Gryff (Rob Brydon), finds himself forced to face his past in the form of Freya’s loyal huntsman army who all consider him a traitor, and another enemy from the past who stands revealed thanks to the power of the mirror.

Magnificent production, costume design

What stands out most about The Huntsman: Winter’s War by far is its visuals. From the resplendent, shimmering gowns and striking make-up adorning the film’s two powerful queens to the design of the film’s fortresses, forests, and non-human denizens, it’s a feast for the eyes in just about every frame.

All that optical splendor hardly comes as a surprise, considering the creative team at work here. Proceeding from director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan’s vision from the film, production designer Dominic Watkins, who worked on the first film, expands the fairy tale world beyond the dark forest that dominated Snow White and the Huntsman, and his work continues to impress.

Script, story fall short

Unfortunately, like so many other genre films where the eye candy and casting takes priority over telling a compelling story, The Huntsman: Winter’s War falls far short of its predecessor in terms of giving audiences thoughtful characterization and character-driven drama. The film beats you over the head with its predominant theme – how betrayal can lead to the hardening of even the kindest heart – and offers little else in terms of insight into why the principals do what they do.

As such, the production truly wastes the casting of Emily Blunt.  As it dictates the Ice Queen be driven solely by that one sentiment, the script limits Blunt’s range of expression and emotion to a wooden performance that’s far below any expectations audiences may have from her previous work.

Hemsworth, Frost, and Chastain get to have far more fun, in comparison, and Theron once again chills as Ravenna, a role critics lauded as one of the few good things about Snow White and the Huntsman the first time around. But even their characterizations and story arcs are simplistic and far too predictable.

Yes, Hemsworth gets to smile a lot more this time and show some of the on-screen charisma that’s kept his star on the rise. However, the haunted, damaged Huntsman of the first film was a bit more interesting than the bright and cheery version audiences get here.

It doesn’t help that seemingly all the women in powerful roles in The Huntsman: Winter’s War seem driven by that tired “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” cliché. The first film, at least, wrote its female characters as driven by far more, and thus made them far more compelling.

Worth seeing?

Unless you were a die-hard fan of Snow White and the Huntsman and the news that The Huntsman: Winter’s War was on its way to theaters made you squee with delight, safe to say this film is one that can wait for a rental. It’s not terrible, by any means, but the complacency in the film’s writing leads to a mediocrity so profound that it begs the whole “why even bother with a sequel?” question.

In this case, some might answer, “So we can see Charlize Theron as the evil queen again?”

While that is a good answer, it’s simply not good enough.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon and Jessica Chastain. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.