The Huntsman: Winter’s War Review
Reviewed by Lewis Hurst.
Once upon a time, in a not so far away land, Universal released a little fantasy film called Snow White and the Huntsman. The film was a big success and a sequel was quickly given the green light. But problems arose; specifically, the scandal of star Kristen Stewart’s affair with director Rupert Sanders. This led Universal in a pickle of how to go ahead with the sequel; recast Snow White, make a prequel exploring the back stories of other characters, a spin-off focusing on Eric the Huntsman or conveniently write out Snow White? The decision they went for was… all of the above, in a way. To put it simply, this is not “The Story before Snow White” that the trailers would have you believe. This is in fact a sequel focusing on the Huntsman.
Years ago, the Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) swore she would never feel love again after her infant daughter was murdered. Believing love to be a weakness, Freya left the side of her sister, the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and created her own kingdom to the north with her own army of Huntsmen. Upon learning two of her huntsmen, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) have fallen in love; Freya apparently kills Sara and leaves Eric for dead. Seven years later, after Eric and Snow White defeated Ravenna; Snow White has ordered for the Magic Mirror to be sent to Sanctuary; the only place where its dark power can be contained. When the Mirror is stolen, Snow White’s husband King William (Sam Claflin) finds Eric and asks him to find it and take it to Sanctuary. Eric discovers that Freya is also seeking the Mirror and knowing that the Mirror will make her unstoppable, Eric sets out to find it first. On his journey, Eric meets an apparently not dead Sara, who hates Eric for leaving her for dead. The two agree to work together to find the Mirror before Freya uses its power to resurrect Ravenna and conquer the world.
Let me put it this way, if you’ve seen the trailer you have a very good idea of how the film is going to go. And even then by the hour mark you will likely have figured out the next hour. The plot is incredibly predictable and hits all the beats you expect it to. So if you’re looking for some original plotting, look elsewhere. That’s not to say the story is bad however. It is an enjoyable plot and it helps provide some good energy to the film, it’s just that it’s one we’ve all seen before. Stop me if you’ve heard this one; evil villain wants an artefact of doom to rule the world with and a small group of heroes try to find it first to stop the villain while being chased by the villain’s forces. I think most of you can name at least three other fantasy films that use that basic premise. But that said, it works for The Huntsman: Winter’s War. A basic plot allows the franchise to realign itself, rework the characters and the world for future films; things are left open for a Huntsman 3 depending on this film’s box office so here’s hoping this one is a success and doesn’t flop as fantasy films that aren’t Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit are known to do.
However, it is quite saddening to see a female-orientated fantasy franchise go under such re-working to become a male-orientated franchise. While the women still outnumber the men in this entry (five female main characters as opposed to three male main characters) there’s no denying the film is called The HuntsMAN and thus Eric is the lead. Now this isn’t me calling the film sexist by any means, it’s far from it, it’s just saddening to see one of the few fantasy franchises with a female lead become another fantasy film with a male lead, especially since Freya is the film’s most interesting character and you can’t help but think that a film about her might have been more interesting.
The film also reworks the style and tone of the universe. While Snow White and the Huntsman was incredibly dark with very little humour and fun, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a lot lighter in tone. While there’s still a lot of darkness, the murder of an infant is incredibly dark subject matter for a fantasy blockbuster marketed at families, there are obvious efforts to make the film more fun. Specifically, the film is a lot funnier than its predecessor. This is in no doubt helped by Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach playing four Dwarves; Nion, Gryff, Bromwyn and Doreena who accompany Eric and Sara on their quest and in turn provide much of the humour. And it helps. The film is very funny (the comedy antics of the Dwarves were drawing big laughs from the screening I attended) which leads to a much lighter tone. Thankfully the Dwarves don’t end up Jar Jar Binks-ing the film. But the film is also dark when it needs to be and it’s the contrasting tones that help the darker moments stand out. Compare this to Batman v Superman which had a darker tone all the time which led it to be an oppressively one note experience, whereas The Huntsman knows it can’t be dark all the time and you have to have those moments of levity to make sure the audience are having fun. If you want an idea of the film’s tone, 2014’s Maleficent should give you a good idea of what to expect tone wise from The Huntsman.
Chris Hemsworth carries the film well, which is to be expected from the star of another popular fantasy franchise; Thor. Hemsworth has enough charisma to make Eric a captivating protagonist and some will be glad to hear his Scottish accent has improved. Jessica Chastain does an admirable job, but is easily the weakest of the four leads, however this is more the fault of the Scottish accent Chastain uses for Sara. It’s not bad, it’s just not great either and it impacts her performance. Hearing Chastain with a Scottish accent was surprising since the trailers had Chastain using an English accent which makes me wonder if they dubbed the Scottish accent in during post-production or if they dubbed the English accent for the trailers to make Sara’s dialogue more intelligible for US audiences.
Emily Blunt is the true star of the film however. Freya is an excellent character and Blunt gives her lots of depth. If there’s a character you’re going to feel sorry for, it’s Freya. She’s a perfect tragic villain and Blunt was the perfect actress for the role. You ultimately feel that Freya was a victim of circumstance and only turned to evil because of the heartbreak she suffered. The character gets some very touching scenes late on that could have been bad, but Blunt carries them brilliantly making them more touching. Charlize Theron, who was easily the best thing in Snow White and the Huntsman, again puts in a wonderful performance as Ravenna. Sadly she just doesn’t get enough to do. She appears briefly at the start and then returns at the start of the third act which means Ravenna doesn’t stick around long enough to make too much of an impact. Those excited for Theron or the “The Ice Queen vs. The Evil Queen” fight teasing tossed around in the marketing will walk away disappointed.
First time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan does a pretty good job with this film, action is well shot and is shown to be in competent hands. While there are no shots that will make you go “wow!” there’s no shots that look bad either. Nicolas-Troyan shows he has an eye for special effects and can handle a big budget fantasy film well, so here’s hoping he gets more chances in the future. He even manages to ensure the film has excellent pacing, an ever elusive concept to even the most talented directors.
The film’s best aspect though, has to be James Newton Howard’s score. Returning from the first film, Howard’s score is even better than his score for the first which was one of my favourite film scores ever. Howard creates an engrossing score that works perfectly outside the film as well, weaving in new material as well as revisiting leitmotifs and themes from the first film. Ravenna’s theme, Eric’s theme and the Sanctuary Theme all get revisited while Freya and Sara get new themes along with a love theme for Eric and Sara. Hearing familiar themes was a huge joy for me to hear and the return of the “Escape” theme from the first film during Eric’s fight against a horde of goblins was a huge joy to hear. It may only be April, but The Huntsman: Winter’s War walks away with the best score of 2016 so far. Even if you have no intentions of seeing the film, if you have any interest in film scores it deserves a listen.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War could easily have been a disaster. Ditching the first film’s main star and continuing without the main character could have been a risk that was too great. But somehow, we got a very enjoyable fantasy film that manages to get (nearly) everything right leading to the first live-action film of 2016 I would consider seeing again in the cinema. It’s huge fun, a joy to watch and is, in a word, epic! I’m pleased to say this is one fairy tale that does indeed have a happy ending.