The previews for The Huntsman: Winter’s War tell a story. It’s an epic tale, a story of a franchise-in-the-making that shed a central but boring element in favor of creating a visual feast that walks the line between drama and camp. It’s the story of a team that said, “Well, what’s better than one scene-stealing magical evil queen? How about two scene-stealing magical evil queens? We’ve got Charlize Theron, someone get Emily Blunt on the phone! Chop chop!” It’s a story where some brilliant executive knew enough to say, “let’s give the people what they want, and what they want is Blunt and Furiosa going at each other with outlandish powers. Make it so.”
This story is a fiction. That movie does not exist. Forgive the references to the powers of these two misused queens, but this movie is a stone-cold, solid-gold, white-hot mess.
That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor of Snow White and the Huntsman, Winter’s War looks like a million bucks — at least from time to time. It’s packed from top to bottom with a hell of a cast — beyond Blunt and Theron, there’s the returning Chris Hemsworth and Sam Claflin, along with Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, and a pack of other terrific performers — and boasts the presence of three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood as costume designer. As with the first film, the designs are breathtaking. At an early screening, people laughed, cheered, and applauded with great regularity. This movie is many things, but none of them are boring.
Therein lies the problem, however. Those previews described above? They work because they indicate that this is a film about two sisters doing battle. That’s not an honest depiction of what’s going on. The events begin well before those of the prior film, and end concurrent with an unseen Kristen Stewart’s continued rule. This makes the film both a prequel and a sequel, and the result is a story that feels almost completely expository. It’s odd, to say the least.
The action begins when Freya (Blunt) discovers she’s pregnant by a man she loves, who is promised to another. Convinced of his faithfulness, she gives birth to the baby, and soon after receives word that he’ll arrive to marry her that evening in the royal garden, against the wishes of his family. But when she goes to meet him, she notices the tower in which the baby is sleeping is on fire, and she races upstairs to find her lover declaring that he had no choice but to kill the child. This awakens Freya’s dormant (and cool) ice powers, and also prompts her to start an army of children, who she has trained in the art of war in exchange for their adherence to one law: love is a weakness and a sin, and can never be allowed to thrive. Two of those children? Eric (Hemsworth) and Sarah (Chastain). You can probably guess what happens next.
Both before and after their love connection, all sorts of things happen, only some of which make sense and almost none of which tie into the movie previously sold. Theron’s appearances in the film are among its highlights, and her fiendish performance is every bit as fun as it was in the first film. Blunt, too, is unsurprisingly terrific. And when the price we pay for their absence is the presence of Chastain and Thor, God of Thunder, that’s not so bad. Charm, talent, and very good looks can cover a multitude of sins.
Movies aren’t previews, though, and nearly every movie ever made that works has a story worth following. That’s not the case here. The rules never seem to stick, the surprises don’t surprise, the plans are never clear, and neither are the reasons for their failures. Worse yet, the film is shot at times like a found-footage movie and edited in such a way that what logic there is becomes that much harder to detect. With one climactic exception, nearly all the fight scenes are so difficult to follow that they almost demand to be ignored. Everyone’s wearing the same damn clothes and making the same damn noises, and unless Chastain’s hair is whipping through the air it’s impossible to know who’s fighting who, or why.
It’s not as if the best stories need to be complicated. Snow White is, by itself, an incredibly simple story. But Winter’s War is too obtuse to be simple, and too dumb to be complex. And heaven forbid you try to tease out any broader themes about love, family, sisterhood, motherhood, or even ice. Frozen was a million times more sophisticated, and that’s a family movie with a talking snowman. If Emily Blunt had burst into “Let It Go,” at least then there’d be a conversation about camp, but instead the film is competent, silly, gorgeous, and forgettable. This cast and those effects deserved much, much better.
One last, odd note: nearly all of the twists, such as they are, will have been spoiled for anyone who saw any of the aforementioned previews. In our spoiler-phobic culture, that seems like a deeply cynical move, creating an intriguing premise out of a mediocre conclusion. Add all of that together, and what you’ve got is a dud. It’s an enjoyable dud. It’s certainly a beautiful dud. It’s a well-acted dud. But a dud it is, and when it lands, that landing is as heavy as a big, fat, icy snowball.
Rent it, and talk through the whole thing. Then it would probably be a hoot.