In the movie-watching game of face-palm moments of ineptitude versus appreciative nods of admiration, The Huntsman: Winter’s War just barely squeaks out a win for face-palms. However, because we expect it to be void of logic, reason, intellect and humor, and in fact it lacks only the first two, it’s actually an entertaining movie.
The film is both a prequel and a sequel to Snow White & the Huntsman (2012). The opening half-hour is set prior to the 2012 film, and follows Ravenna (Charlize Theron) as she kills her husband to become the evil queen. It also focuses on Ravenna’s sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who turns into a cold-hearted ice queen after her daughter is murdered. Freya escapes to the mountains to build an ice fortress and strives to conquer all the land in the north. To do so, she recruits children and trains them to be her army; as adults they’re known as her “huntsmen,” and two of the best are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain).
Freya’s one rule for the huntsmen is that they don’t fall in love. So naturally, Eric and Sara fall in love. Then they’re torn apart in a way that shouldn’t be revealed here, and he goes off to help Snow White. Jump to seven years later (and after the events of Snow White & the Huntsman) and Freya’s power has grown exponentially. But she seeks an even greater power: She wants Ravenna’s magic mirror. Good thing for the good guys that Eric is also tracking it because he knows Freya will be unstoppable with it. (FYI: Kristen Stewart does not appear as Snow White).
For help Eric has the aid of two dwarfs, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), and later the female dwarfs Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). And thank goodness for these folks, not because they serve any essential function to the plot whatsoever, but because they offer genuinely funny comic relief that the movie sorely needs.
What’s more, for as considerable as this cast is, it’s saying something that the four dwarfs steal the show. Not once does Hemsworth have a facial expression that’s worthy of the peril he’s facing, Blunt looks mopey and Chastain looks confused. Theron handles the queen better this time around (less yelling here), but her character’s role feels forced.
The script by Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos is cleverly conceived in its broadest strokes, meaning the character arcs and plot structure make sense and seem logical. Too bad director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who worked as visual effects supervisor and second-unit director on the first film, never finds a way to incorporate suspenseful action into the narrative. As a whole, the action is decent, but far too many up-tempo moments feel they’re there for the sake of being there rather than because the story organically needs them. For example, as Eric, Nion, and Gryff are having a beer in a bar in walk some of Freya’s goons for a fight. It all feels superfluous, and the surprising result of the fight could’ve been achieved in other ways.
The production design and costumes are top-notch; the visual effects are good, if cartoonish at times. Overall The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a legitimately solid effort that does just enough right to satisfy.