Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
We’ve said it before: It’s the rare sequel that’s actually better than its preceding installment (Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but back in a preview last month here at borg.com, we predicted that The Huntsman: Winter’s War might just break through to join those few. The original Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) was fun but forgettable, despite high-profile headliners Kristen Stewart (the Twilight Saga), Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Star Trek), and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Italian Job, Aeon Flux). It must have been fun enough, however, since Theron and Hemsworth, along with several other original cast members, signed on for a second film–and convinced star-powered newcomers Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, The Adjustment Bureau) and Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak, Zero Dark Thirty) to join them. Thanks in no small part to the stellar cast, plus gorgeous special effects, and elaborate costumes by Academy Award-winning costumer Colleen Atwood (Arrow), The Huntsman: Winter’s War stepped up its game and really delivered a great fantasy film experience.
It’s no secret that a great backstory adds layers and richness to a film, and filmmakers capitalized on that to develop the all-new plot to Winter’s War, reaching well beyond the Grimm-fairytale framework of the “Snow White” story. In the original film we were introduced to Theron’s incarnation of Snow White’s evil stepmother, Queen Ravenna, and her magical, corrupting golden mirror. In Winter’s War, we meet Ravenna’s younger sister, the lovely Freya, content to live in her sister’s shadow, as long as she has love in her life. But when her infant daughter dies, Freya’s heart is frozen, and her own cold magic awakens. In an unsubtle nod to Disney’s Frozen, Freya becomes the Ice Queen (actually called “The Frozen Queen” in the trailer), and conquers all the lands of the north, marshaling unbeatable armies of child soldiers she raises in place of her lost daughter. “In my kingdom we have but one law,” she says: “Do not love.”
Inevitably, two of her most prized soldiers–her children–break that law. Young warriors Sara (Chastain) and Eric (Hemsworth) woo and wed in secret, until betrayed and ripped apart by the queen’s jealousy. Eric ends up in service to Ravenna, to play out the adventure in The Huntsman. Seven years pass, and Winter’s War then turns from prequel to sequel. When in service to Snow White’s kingdom, Eric is charged with a task worthy of a true Huntsman: Recover Ravenna’s mirror and deliver it safely to Sanctuary, where it and its magic can be locked away for good. Thus begins a lively quest, aided by familiar dwarf ally Nion (Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block) and delightful newcomers Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith, Galivant), Gryff (Rob Bryson, Cinderella), and Doreena (Alexandra Roach, Being Human).
Despite how I’ve made it appear, the storyline is simple and straightforward. The richness of the film comes in the performances from all the leads and supporting characters. It’s nice to see Hemsworth step out of his stilted Thor role and take on a swaggering, good-humored hero. All four dwarves are wonderful, providing a great deal of the onscreen magic and chemistry (think Fezzig and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, not Rool and Franjean from Willow). But much here must be credited to Blunt and Chastain, two of our most favorite actors in recent years. Although the movie is set in an established universe with existing characters, it’s these new characters and their storyline that form the backbone of the entire film. Eric may be the film’s hero, but Chastain’s Sara is the protagonist (indeed, she is every bit as much a Huntsman as Hemsworth’s Eric), and Blunt’s Freya has the most moving character arc. Returning director Cedric Nicholas Troyan (The Ring) may have taken a cue from Mad Max: Fury Road, cleverly tucking the tale of three main female characters into an established fantasy universe with a solid male draw.
Whatever brings you to The Huntsman: Winter’s War, we think there’s plenty here to satisfy, on multiple levels. There’s no question, it’s just a great looking fantasy world (where did they find a moor with pine trees?!) with dazzling special effects, from Theron’s liquid gold to Blunt’s frosty gaze and snowy owl spies. The costumes could keep you staring at details for days–Blunt seemed to have a new ensemble in every scene (do you hear me, I, Frankenstein people, who kept a character in the same costume for 2000 years?!), yet they were all in the same metal, grey, and feathered palette. There are plenty of lively action sequences, well-choreographed fight scenes (Chastain kicks butt!) and lots of humor and romance.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is in theaters now.