I can’t figure out why The Huntsman: Winter’s War exists. Honestly. The movie’s a rare cinematic do-over – an opportunity to re-enter a flawed story (the one told in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman) with the intention of salvaging the tiny bits that worked the first time, while also course-correcting and removing the parts the audience deemed unnecessary. Only, that doesn’t happen. This peculiar, hybrid prequel/sequel commits the same mistakes as its predecessor, and ends up being as shapeless, nondescript and unimaginative as Snow White was… only this time, they don’t have Kristen Stewart to blame.
So, what went wrong? As far as I can tell, the producers miscalculated just how interesting Chris Hemsworth’s rugged fairy tale warrior, Eric, was, or could be. His character in Snow White was neither a love interest nor a savior. He lived in the narrative shadow of his leading lady, while both Stewart and Hemsworth repeatedly were eclipsed by the scenery chewing of Charlize Theron’s evil queen, Ravenna. I can’t remember a single non-Theron scene from Snow White and the Huntsman. Her presence was just that dominant.
She’s back for The Huntsman (you thought a little thing like death could stop her?), though not before we have to endure a painfully slow and surprisingly generic origin story for Hemsworth’s heroic Huntsman. The way this new, reconfigued story goes, the young Ravenna had a powerful sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), whose God-given abilities involved ice and cold. She’s Elsa, without the musical interludes. After establishing a kingdom on the outskirts of the land, Queen Freya builds an army of Huntsman – and Huntswomen – filling the void in her heart with power, because love is not an option. (There’s a dark subplot tied to Freya involving the loss of an infant that had me wondering if Huntsman was made with children in mind. I guess it wasn’t.)
For reasons that aren’t clear, however, Freya decides that her two best fighters can’t be together, so she drives a wedge between her strongest warriors, Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Due to magical maneuverings, Eric comes to believe that Sara has died, leading to the sullen Huntsman that we eventually meet in Snow White. It’s here that The Huntsman stops being a prequel and starts building off of the actions in Snow White. We hear talk of Snow White’s reign, and Huntsman mourns to loss of his true love, Sara. Except, she didn’t die. She comes back! Only, she hates the Huntsman now. Again, I’d struggle to explain why, because the movie doesn’t give a reason.
As you can probably tell by now, The Huntsman is unnecessarily convoluted, stuffed with characters who lack clear motivations all serving a story that makes no sense. Hemsworth and Chastain’s characters are supposed to be in love, though they spend the bulk of the movie bickering for no reason. Both Huntsman and Snow White center on characters living in miserable times under the thumb of wicked despots. The characters don’t want to be part of their stories, and we – as audience members – don’t want to watch them. It’s a strange dynamic. Eric and Sara eventually go off on a mission to retrieve Ravenna’s magical mirror, mainly to keep it out of Freya’s icy grip. Why? No clue. In between vague expositional chunks, Hemsworth and Chastain engage in forgettable forest battles with nondescript bad guys who exist only to temporarily stand in our hero’s way. It’s yawn-inducing.
Guess what eventually happens here? The same thing that happened in Snow White. Hemsworth once again plays second fiddle to a beautiful female co-star – Chastain this time – and does little to establish The Huntsman as a character we’d care to follow. New director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan shoots with the same muddy, bland cinematography (fantasy should be vibrant and creative, not sullen and drab). And when Theron eventually resurfaces (with barely 15 minutes left to go in the film), Hemsworth – and basically everyone around him – wilts like a delicate flower in a July heat.
This begs the question: Why aren’t we structuring a series of movies around Charlize Theron’s deliciously wicked character? She seems to enjoy playing this caricature as much as we enjoy watching her. There’s a hint at the end of The Huntsman that Theron’s not done. Unfortunately, this movie’s so dour and dull, not even the prospect of more Queen Charlize could rouse me from the Huntsman-induced slumber.