A borderline fine fantasy adventure with just enough fun from Theron and Hemsworth to make it tolerable.
In The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the current trend of spinning franchise potential out of old and new properties, through sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and more besides, has reached the apogee of cynicism and laziness.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Eric “The” Huntsman, reprising his role from the 2012 dark and gritty Snow White and the Huntsman. Here, we discover his origin story, not to mention that of “deceased” Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), her sister Freya, the Ice Queen (Emily Blunt), who raised Eric and his forbidden lover Sara (Jessica Chastain) to be her Huntsmen. All collide, when Eric is asked by Snow White’s forces to find the magic mirror of Ravenna, at the same time as Freya attempts to recover it for her own evil schemes.
This is a mildly interesting way to do a franchise entry, by spinning off into a different adventure with new characters, but it draws too obviously from other franchises to be at all compelling. The production design and visual effects are indebted to both The Lord of the Rings and Guardians Of The Galaxy, as well as drawing from the well of the previous film. Its CGI effects look cool, but they rarely feel like they are actually in the same scene as the actors. Meanwhile the story is ripped right out of Frozen, but with far less singing and less fun.
On top of this, although director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries to move away from the mud-based grit of the first instalment, there are still far too many uniformly-dressed warriors in leather, and poorly lit scenes in rain to shake it off completely. Meanwhile, Blunt and especially Theron are living in a gloriously camp high-fantasy picture; the former is all too often held back because of her character’s internalised emotions and, well, coldness, but the latter’s having the time of her life, and brings out the best in her onscreen sister. But it’s too little too late, and although a forest-based skirmish with weird, almost-cool goblins manages to strike just about the right tone, it’s undone by more laziness.
That laziness takes the form of trying to convince the audience that Hemsworth’s Huntsman is going to die, something that they try at least three times. There are also several side characters that the film makes important but never puts the work in to convince you of it. Any promise that may have been had in the super dark (a poor tone mixture again), baby-burning prologue that alludes to grief and loss, is swiped away. Instead we get a messy, unconvincing story about how “love conquers all”. Specifically the love between two people doing Scottish accents – if you thought Hemsworth’s was cartoonish, Chastain’s doubles down on that, sporadically sounding like the princess from Brave.
If the film has saving graces, it’s that after a prologue that’s ten-minutes too long, it’s pace doesn’t dip again; that and the ever-lovely Hemsworth, who seems to know exactly what direction the film should be going in, and lightens the mood at every turn. A film with just him and Theron could have been a summer gem. As ambitious as this is, it’s also unforgiveably lazy and cynical.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016), directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International. Certificate 12A.