In the age of the insta-franchise, where studios force sequels on audiences whether they're warranted or not, it shouldn't come as a great shock that The Huntsman: Winter's War exists. After all, despite mostly mixed notices from critics, 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman still managed to rake in nearly $400 million worldwide against a $170 mil budget. Thus, with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, here comes Winter's War off the Universal Studios assembly line to serve as prequel, sequel, spin-off and, most importantly, brand extender.
Now, while I wasn't a particularly big fan of the previous film, my general indifference to it came down more to execution than concept. While I left the theater feeling that the revisionist fairy tale, directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Kristen Stewart as the most butt-kicking Snow White in cinematic history, didn't live up to its own potential, I did think that a potential follow-up (if one was absolutely necessary, which is certainly open to debate) might have been made worthy of our time with a few minor course corrections.
Well, as course corrections go, probably the biggest is that they've jettisoned Snow White entirely from her own franchise. Instead, the leading role goes to Chris Hemsworth's hatchet-wielding manly man, Eric. For this go-round, we start several years before the events of Snow White, with some convenient narration by Liam Neeson (earning an easy paycheck) to fill us in on how evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) rose to power, and how her once-gentile sister Freya (Emily Blunt) endured a tragedy that transformed her into a vengeful Ice Queen.
Determined to conquer the land, Freya has legions of children abducted from their families, to be raised in her castle and serve as her army of Huntsmen. Enter Eric, the definite-article Huntsman of the title, who becomes the greatest warrior in her army, but whose forbidden love affair (see, thanks to that aforementioned tragedy, Freya has banned all love in her kingdom) with fellow "greatest warrior" Sara (Jessica Chastain) leads to him being tossed out of the castle, all the while believing his beloved is dead as well.
Cut to seven years later (conveniently hopscotching over the events of the previous film). The Ice Queen's ongoing onslaught is threatening to freeze the entire country, and Eric is drafted into duty to retrieve and destroy that magic mirror from last time, which has been misplaced after driving poor Snow White a little bit nuts. Reflecting the general lower-budget feel of the proceedings this time around, we're down from seven dwarves to two, with Nick Frost reprising his role as comic relief dwarf Nion, joined by Rob Brydon as his associate Gryff.
In the early part of Huntsman's development, Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont had signed to direct before the dreaded "creative difference" shuttled him to the nearest exit. Darabont's initial involvement had me intrigued, and while it's unfair to judge credited helmer Cedric Nicolas-Troyan against what Darabont might have done, Nicolas-Troyan sure doesn't do himself favors with his listless, lackluster approach. The action scenes are dull, the character scenes are duller. If you've guessed that Eric's paths will once again cross with lost love Sara, congratulations, you've seen a movie or two in your life.
And based on that, you can probably also intuit that it won't simply be a matter of them picking up their love life where they left off, so buckle up for plenty of forced banter and gooey glances as they go through their preassigned paces to the preordained endpoint. That's really the biggest problem with The Huntsman is how rote it feels. Having wrapped up in a reasonably satisfying manner last time, there wasn't any inherent necessity to tell this story. And so the whole thing ends up feeling even more mercenary than usual from a big studio.
How you waste a top-tier cast in a total nothing of a movie like this I'll never understand. Pity poor Jessica Chastain, who I've adored in just about everything she's done and who looks like she was forced into this project against her will. Her mouth is reciting the dull dialogue by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin (whose Twitter account is one of the best things ever, by the way), but her eyes seem to be pleading with the audience to remember she starred in Zero Dark Thirty once upon a time. Theron's brief reappearance lets her swallow up whatever scenery she didn't devour the last time, and Blunt feels like she's in another picture entirely.
The only one who mostly escapes intact from this mess is Hemsworth, whose natural charm and engaging screen presence yet again manage to elevate even the most middling of movie experiences. And if there's one word to describe this film, it's "middling." Its ambitions aren't high enough for it to be truly terrible, so it contents itself with being entirely disposable. While I'd love nothing more than to tell you that this prequel/sequel manages to upend expectations and surpass the low bar set by its predecessor, alas, I cannot tell a lie. The Huntsman is not the fairest in the land. C-
For more movie talk, including thoughts on The Huntsman and The Jungle Book, plus my interview with Key & Peel about their new comedy Keanu, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: