The Huntsman: Winter's War - Review: A winter's fail

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The Huntsman: Winter's War - Review: A winter's fail

Sometimes, someone doesn’t have to win to win you over. As much as we can appreciate the victor for their achievements, there are times when you can’t help but stand up and applaud the failure for their sheer determination to keep on trying. The underdog in the fight that keeps getting back up again until he earns the respect of his bully, the loser guy that doesn’t give up on the popular girl of his dreams until she realizes just how much he must really likes her; sometimes, you just have to keep hanging in there. With that in mind, you have to admire Joe Roth and Roth films for not giving up on making a sequel to 2012's financially successful Snow White and The Huntsman despite everything going against them. They told all the fairy tale elements of Snow White’s story last time but will happily make up some more. Both their director, Rupert Sanders and Snow White, Kirsten Stewart become involved in a scandalous marital affair (leading to Sanders getting divorced) taking them both off the project for fears of a PR nightmare but still they pressed on, basing a story around her co-star Chris Hemsworth. They even throw in just about every popular genre troupe from recent years in the hope of success from an ice queen (Frozen) to a feisty red head that’s good with a bow and arrow (Brave) and enough Lord of the Rings riffing to drown a cave troll. Yet the result, despite being rather fun in places, is a muddled magical mess. You can applaud the efforts but the results will not leave you happily ever after.

Before helping Snow White defeat the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road), The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth – Thor) was raised as a champion in the army of her sister, The Ice Queen of the North,  Freya (Emily Blunt – Edge of Tomorrow), along with his warrior love Sara (Jessica Chastain – Crimson Peak). When Freya seeks control of Ravenna’s old magic mirror, the Huntsman must prevent her from becoming unstoppably powerful.

So what we have here is one part prequel, for parts sequel. It spends the first 20 minutes or so in Liam Neeson-narrated flashbacks (he must have throat-punched Morgan freeman out of the sound booth) that quickly feels like a History Channel special purely designed to justify the existence of the new off-shoot characters and give Hemsworth’s Huntsman an origins story. Everything about it feels forced, which is always a waving red flag for a sequel. However, once the film speeds ahead 7 years with Snow White happily on the throne, things do genuinely improve. Departing the sad and serious tones of the frozen kingdom, it becomes the lighter enjoyable romp it should be with Hemsworth actually smiling and Nick Frost’s (Paul) surviving dwarf, perfectly accompanied by Rob Brydon as his brother, bring some wonderful comic relief. It sets itself up well with a quest to get “the one mirror” and take it somewhere safe and up until its halfway point becomes a decent encounter-centric fantasy adventure with playful character interactions... before the magic falls apart faster than an assistant that skipped rehearsals for the “sawing her in half trick”. It quickly losses all purpose as it builds up to a war that doesn’t happen and desperately crow-bars Charlize Theron back from the grave. Characters switch sides too late and too often to carry enough significance and always predictably. Yet worst of all is the way the originality of the film almost melts away entirely to the extent that your casual cinema-going friend might start asking if they’ve seen this one before. There’s full-blown mimicry with second rate results like Blunt’s Freya riding a polar bear and displaying her frozen victims in her palace like Tilda Swinton’s White Witch of Narnia, and a palace that even resembles Minas Morgul after a blizzard. In the final act, Hemsworth even jokes that, Tthis is the worst plan ever”.... you have to wonder if he was aiming it at someone off-camera.

Now, the film’s most redeeming feature by far, is its visuals. New director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s background is in visual effects and he shows a keen sense for detail and imagination. It gives the film a strong comparison to 2014's fellow fairy tale extrapolation, Maleficent (for which Nicolas-Troyan was 2nd Unit Director). Even if the story falls asleep, there is often something to visually savor on screen.  Although turning goblins into bigger hulking creatures may sent traditionalists scurrying for a strong reaction based meme, splattering their bodies with molten gold for crude weapons makes them very unorthodox and fascinating monsters to battle. There’s a whole cast of background creativity too, from smaller fairies sparkling across the screen to boulder-like grass-covered tortoises. The sprawling landscape shots also impress, particularly with a harsh snowy terrain of the north. The CG visual effects also come by royal appointment as the magical powers of both queens look stunning. At many points, the action is good too. Although the opening section drags, combat-training montages do liven things up. The fantasy-based sword and bow play is fast and acrobatic but without pushing things too far beyond believability, save one late tall building stunt that’s far too “Ethan Hunt-sman” to take remotely seriously. Both Hemsworth and Chastain convince on screen as elite warriors.

Despite execution issues, the film is very well-cast. Hemsworth spends a lot of the film as a happy man doing a Braveheart impression but it works making it easier to go along with him. Chastain feels suitably fiesty and while fun putting Hemsworth in his place, she’s often clawing out for a character depth that just isn’t there. Blunt sells the cold-hearted anti-love routine well with a mixture of frailty and cruelty that echoes the trauma of her creation, even if her militarized child catcher routine can be difficult to buy into. Theron returns to her role well being sultry and sinister. The real scene stealers of the film though are Frost and Brydon as they find great humour in playing against the more familiar D&D/LoTR dwarf stereotypes. This gets even better when joined by the female duo of Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach such as fiercely disagreeing over which dwarf gender is the ugly one.

So Winter’s War is a decent sequel idea that gets more tangled than Rapunzel only to completely trip over itself. It could have been a great fantasy adventure if it had just picked a direction and stuck to it rather than running all over place trying to cover all the bases. If you liked the first film for more than just Kirsten Stewart, then you’ll probably enjoy re-visiting the world and its visuals alone make it at least worth your consideration but be warned that taking a bite into this apple is far from poison-free.


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