Hollywood’s darker reinventions of well-known fairy tales haven’t worked out well that often, but 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman proved to be at least a commercial exception. One of the top surprise box office hits of 2012, the movie, despite some mixed reception, and the fact that another studio had released an unrelated Snow White-inspired movie mere months beforehand, that being Mirror, Mirror, went on to make almost $400 million at the worldwide box office. This even shocked studio, Universal, who responded by trying to devise a follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman, despite not previously having one planned.
It’s taken just under four years, but that follow-up has finally arrived, in the form of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, part prequel and part sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, and more or less standing as a spin-off more than anything else. Surprisingly, the script only has two people credited to it, but it feels like even more people doctored the story beyond that, since Universal seems to have penned one treatment for the movie. It seems like the studio then had to revise their plans for a sequel, after Kristen Stewart declined to return for the follow-up, which may or may not have anything to do with the alleged affair she had with Snow White and the Huntsman director, Rupert Sanders, who also didn’t return for this second movie. This leads to The Huntsman: Winter’s War being an odd hodgepodge of ideas that also has to find an excuse to write around Stewart not returning for this follow-up, and in the end, it’s a movie that exists more so by studio demand than genuine inspiration.
If you happened to like Snow White and the Huntsman, which was a decent movie overall, then you’ll probably not mind checking out The Huntsman: Winter’s War, though it’s definitely a lesser follow-up, and might not merit the trip to theatres for many people. Sporadic moments of fun still creep through the movie every so often, and the high polish in the action and visuals is definitely commendable, but all in all, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a movie that obviously doesn’t need to exist, and ultimately accomplishes too little when it comes to actually engaging an audience.
With Snow White now out of the picture, beyond a brief rear shot of a body double for the absent Kristen Stewart in one scene, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is left to center on Eric, the titular huntsman from the first movie, once again played by Chris Hemsworth. Considering that Hemsworth was one of the best parts of Snow White and the Huntsman, centering an entire movie around his character isn’t necessarily a bad idea on paper. The Huntsman does have a rich implied history in Snow White and the Huntsman, and is a character that’s fun and complex enough to possibly sustain his own spin-off movie, even without Snow White this time.
Once again, Hemsworth remains the big highlight in what’s otherwise a pretty disappointing spin-off. Hemsworth is still fun and charming in the lead title role of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and doesn’t feel hamstrung by Stewart not returning for this movie. This second movie explores the Huntsman’s origin story, which helps to explain why Queen Ravenna first sought him out to hunt down Snow White in the original movie, though the history explored between these two is still pretty shallow in the end.
Speaking of Ravenna, she is back in this follow-up, once again played by Charlize Theron, despite Ravenna appearing to be very definitively destroyed at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman. The movie barely explains how and why Ravenna survived her very obvious death at the end of the first movie, and the small excuse it gives feels pretty lazy, honestly. Fortunately, Theron is another of this movie’s bright spots, clearly having fun hamming it up as the over-the-top Ravenna, even if her presence is a tad unnecessary, and only seems to be offered because people largely liked Theron’s villain in the first movie.
The main antagonist throughout most of
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is actually Freya, played by Emily Blunt. Freya, despite ironically being named after the Norse goddess of love, is an avid hater of love, to the point where she runs a kingdom with the highest law of never falling in love. Yes, it’s pretty stupid, but I’ll get to that in the appropriate section. Freya also happens to be Ravenna’s sister, who has her own connection to her sister’s villainy, along with the power of Ravenna’s magic mirror, and also happens to have the power to generate and manipulate ice. While there have been obvious accusations of Freya’s character ripping off Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, and there are a handful of sequences in The Huntsman: Winter’s War that do tread rather closely to similar, more family-friendly sequences in Frozen, recall that Frozen is based off of a fairy tale itself, The Snow Queen. In this case, I think I’ll give Universal the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably felt that The Snow Queen was a logical fairy tale to connect to Snow White in a follow-up/spin-off/crossover mash-up of sorts, regardless of Frozen.
What can’t be excused however are two things about Freya, beyond her non-sensical politics. First, Emily Blunt is just blatantly miscast as Freya, especially since she looks absolutely nothing like Charlize Theron. Blunt is a highly emotionally charged actress, and that’s where her big strength lies, so casting her as a cold, emotionless villain just doesn’t make sense, and because of that, her performance just really doesn’t work here. The other thing that can’t be forgiven about Freya is that the way she’s written leads to a couple of dubious retcons from Snow White and the Huntsman. Remember Finn, Ravenna’s devout, creepy and borderline incestuous brother from the first movie? Well, The Huntsman: Winter’s War doesn’t! Finn isn’t even mentioned in this follow-up, which feels very sloppy, since this second movie clearly explores a new element of Ravenna’s family.
The second questionable retcon comes from having to tie Ravenna into the origin of Freya, which kind of makes Ravenna’s origin story from the first movie no longer make sense, especially Ravenna’s and Finn’s childhoods and how they were initially portrayed. You could make the case that Ravenna was manipulating some of the circumstances that led to King Magnus marrying her and adopting her into his kingdom in the first movie, but even then, nobody in Snow White and the Huntsman mentioned that Ravenna has a sister with ice powers that is taking down literally every kingdom in the Northern region. seemingly just because. That’s kind of a weird thing to not notice for a bunch of kings that Ravenna is murdering and stealing power from, just like it’s odd for Freya to never acknowledge that she had a brother with a creepy attachment to her other sister.
Going back to the good guys, most of the surviving dwarf companions from Snow White and the Huntsman end up sitting out The Huntsman: Winter’s War as well. The only dwarf that returns in this second movie is Nick Frost’s Nion, now joined by his money-seeking half-brother, Gryff, played by Rob Brydon. Nion and Gryff largely just serve as comic relief throughout most of the movie, though the sequel tries to make them more interesting by introducing two new female dwarf companions for them to play off of, with Eric and his two partners being joined by Sheridan Smith’s Mrs. Bromwyn, a feisty dwarf lady who hates and distrusts dwarven men, and Alexandra Roach’s Doreena, a sweet-natured dwarf who doesn’t get why the dwarf sexes rarely get along. As with Nion and Gryff, Bromwyn and Doreena inject whatever charm and humour into the movie that Hemsworth doesn’t steal, though compared to the first movie, most of the dwarves don’t leave much of an impression this time.
Unfortunately, the same is true of the movie’s new female lead, Sara, played by Jessica Chastain. Sara presents a decent callback to Snow White and the Huntsman, where Ravenna tries to coerce Eric into hunting Snow White in exchange for reviving Eric’s dead wife, or at least claiming to have the power to do so, though the explanation for how Eric and Sara become, “Married” when training together in Freya’s kingdom is a pretty questionable one. Regardless, Chastain has to do her best Scottish accent in the role of Sara, but, amazingly, she feels like a step down from Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, being a capable, but mostly forgettable female lead that too often pushes her character arc on misunderstandings and inexplicable suspicion. Like Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain just feels oddly cast in this role, especially when she clearly doesn’t have the best grasp on the accent it demands. It might have actually made more sense to swap Chastain and Blunt, so that Chastain was playing Freya, and Blunt was playing Sara. It wouldn’t have salvaged a mostly forgettable movie with mostly forgettable characters, beyond Eric and Ravenna, but at least it would have helped.
Easily the worst casualty of the laboured development behind The Huntsman: Winter’s War is the storyline, which is a real mess. The movie makes the very ill-advised decision to try and simultaneously be both a prequel and a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, first starting by detailing the origins of Eric when he’s forced into fighting as a ‘huntsman’ in Freya’s army of conquerers (providing a flimsy explanation for why Ravenna calls Eric a ‘huntsman’, as in the Snow White fairy tale). The movie then shifts seven years after the events of that origin story after the first act though, which also places it after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, to pursue a completely different plotline about Eric having to steal and hide away Ravenna’s magic mirror for King William, with Sam Claflin making a small, thankless cameo after his role as Prince William in Snow White and the Huntsman.
The movie’s plot is basically a head-on collision of two wildly different ideas for a follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman. The Huntsman: Winter’s War tries to be two movies at the same time, and that’s why the story feels so sloppy. It should have just picked one direction or the other, and committed to either being a pure prequel that’s just about Eric falling in love and defying his former master, ice queen, Freya, or a pure sequel that’s about Eric and some fellow adventurers trying to grab and transfer the mirror to a location where it can no longer ail a mentally deteriorating Snow White, which gives us our excuse as to why Snow White pretty much isn’t in this follow-up movie at all. Either of those ideas would have justified the removal of Snow White from the story, and would have made for tighter, more interesting movies, but Universal unfortunately got greedy, and tried to cram both ideas together, effectively meaning that the story doesn’t succeed at either of its hooks.
On top of that, the premise that the movie does settle on is pretty dumb and illogical. The movie makes a threat out of Freya because her husband apparently murders their infant child, which spontaneously makes her develop ice powers (no, seriously), and then she decides that she’s going to raise an army and rule a kingdom to conquer all kingdoms in the land, while forbidding anyone in her kingdom from falling in love (no, seriously). Even for a fairy tale movie, that is completely ridiculous and non-sensical, and the movie is similarly full of convenient plot device magic that just does whatever the script demands to boot, since it knows that its storyline is complete bullshit. That’s before the movie strains to find excuses to crowbar Ravenna back into the story too, which only makes an already illogical storyline fully feel like it’s just thrown up its hands and abandoned any sense of reason, intelligence or actual intrigue. This very lacklustre story is the main reason why The Huntsman: Winter’s War is so often boring and difficult to invest in, and the main thing dragging it well below the quality of Snow White and the Huntsman.
With Rupert Sanders not returning to the directors’ chair for The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and Universal going through several directors that couldn’t crack the project, directing duties for this follow-up eventually fell on the shoulders of Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor from Snow White and the Huntsman. Nicolas-Troyan has never directed a feature film before, and in this case, that leads to The Huntsman: Winter’s War being exactly the kind of movie you would think it is; All style, no substance.
As you can expect, Nicolas-Troyan does have a great eye for visual design, since he usually works in visual effects, and that at least has The Huntsman: Winter’s War look like a very cool, well-produced movie. There’s definitely style to the production, and if nothing else, Nicolas-Troyan makes the movie pretty watchable, despite its many failings, since it’s at least appealing to look at.
Nicolas-Troyan’s lack of proper directing experience is very evident though. The movie’s performances are very confused and uneven, at least beyond the returning Hemsworth and Theron, and the storytelling is sloppy and questionably paced. Almost every emotional moment in The Huntsman: Winter’s War falls flat, leaving the style and action choreography, which is admittedly pretty good, to salvage what’s left. This blatantly feels like a movie that was mostly put together by the studio and producers, since there’s plenty of neat-looking moments to stick in trailers, but not much else that you’ll remember upon exiting the theatre.
Another surprising high point in Snow White and the Huntsman is its great musical score, composed by James Newton Howard, and fortunately, Howard returns to once again compose the score for The Huntsman: Winter’s War. As with the first movie, the music is pretty good in the follow-up, and helps to increase the movie’s sense of scale beyond its stylish visuals. When the performances fall flat and fail to create a sense of truly thrilling stakes, the movie’s score does at least manage to pick up the slack fairly nicely in several of the better scenes.
The rest of the audio work is pretty solid too. The best place to appreciate it is during the action scenes, and while it’s not Oscar-worthy, the soundtrack still creates the proper sense of action-packed fun as characters exchange blows and clash swords. The effects behind Freya’s ice powers are also an audio highlight, with the sound of forming and shattering ice being given a lot of emphasis in the sound mixing, nicely contributing to the style of The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The sound is a small bright spot in this rather flawed movie, but it’s good that at least the composition and audio still manages to keep pace with this movie’s predecessor.
For all of its cast and narrative deficiencies, The Huntsman: Winter’s War at least turned out very well in the visual department, as I mentioned. While quite a few of the visual highlights are unfortunately given away in the trailers, there’s still no shortage of polish throughout The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The action choreography is generally fast-paced and exciting, and the magic effects with Freya and Ravenna are very cool, even after some of the cool effects that were already used for Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman. The wardrobe is also fantastic, as with the first movie, with the great costumes for Freya and Ravenna being particularly excellent, not to mention very creative.
Even beyond the action, the movie manages at least a decent level of atmosphere, if not an outstanding one. The early scenes of Freya’s icy kingdom where Eric first grew up are probably the point where the movie is at its most immersive. The dwarven lands also remain a great visual highlight too, with the same exotic, surreal animals wandering around them from the first movie, giving them a nicely fantastical quality that effectively offsets the rest of this world’s darker feel. There’s no 3D or IMAX cut for The Huntsman: Winter’s War, just like with its predecessor, but the movie still manages to look pretty sharp, even if it will no doubt be outdone by many more visually ambitious movies by the end of 2016.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a textbook case of design-by-committee on the part of a studio that is only making this follow-up because the original made a lot more money than they thought it would. The movie feels focus-tested, doctored and overly calculated, which makes it feel hollow and unmemorable, despite some of the cool action and visual beats, along with the slick soundtrack, effectively entertaining viewers in the moment.
What really kills the movie though is the fact that it just can’t settle on a central idea, so it just throws everything at the wall and tries to see what sticks. Unfortunately, almost nothing does within this storyline, beyond Eric and Ravenna still having a solid amount of appeal as characters. The Huntsman: Winter’s War doesn’t lose anything from dropping Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, but unfortunately, it still suffers from a new batch of problems that will just make you wonder why you went all the way to the theatre to see this, when you could have instead spent your money on something far better like The Jungle Book.
This just continues to highlight how superfluous The Huntsman: Winter’s War is, and frankly, Universal just shouldn’t have bothered with this follow-up. If you were among the people that enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman, then sure, give this follow-up a quick rental when it hits home viewing, but beyond that, it’s really not worth your time. The Summer blockbuster lineup is just around the corner, so you’re better off saving your valuable movie bucks for many of the next four months’ cinematic treats, most of which will no doubt be better than this thankless, pointless prequel/sequel/spin-off hybrid.
- Hemsworth and Theron remain appealing
- Solid score and audio work
- Sharp visuals and action
- Most of the cast, especially Blunt and Chastain, don't work well
- Storyline is messy, inconsistent and illogical
- Direction is too often flat and unengaging