The Huntsman: Winter’s War
based on characters by Evan Daugherty based on “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm
2016 • 114 minutes • Universal Pictures
The last movie I saw in theaters was Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark, a movie that will make you lose your faith in humanity, let alone cinema. (And, I might add, actively seeks to do so.) I had to go home, eat cake, and watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens to recover. I couldn’t walk past a comic book store for days without repressing the urge to flail screaming through it like my own personal marketplace scene. I’m starting to wonder if my neutral response to the fact that Captain America: Civil War is coming out in just a few weeks, a movie I already have a ticket to see, might not be a side effect of that experience.
After that, any cinema experience looks miles better in comparison. I left The Huntsman: Winter’s War practically glowing. Movies can be just mediocre! Oh happy day!
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sidequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, going back to explain where Erik the Huntsman comes from. Once upon a time, Charlie Theron’s queen Ravenna was acquiring kingdoms by marriage, murder, and mayhem, all with her beloved sister Freya at her side. When Freya has a baby with TV’s Merlin, the baby dies under mysterious circumstances. The infanticide unleashes Freya’s magical potential, which expresses as ice powers, so she travels north to claim a kingdom of her own. She kidnaps children to free them of the illusion of love, raising them to be her Huntsmen and forbidding them to fall in love. Two of them, Erik and Sara, immediately fall in love, of course, and Freya orders them both killed. Erik escapes death and washes up in Snow White and the Huntsman. Years after the events of that film, Ravenna’s mirror goes missing, and Erik is tasking with retrieving it.
Yeesh. No wonder Liam Neeson narrates the film for seemingly forty percent of its runtime. I deeply suspect that The Huntsman: Winter’s War originally started off as an unrelated fantasy script that got retrofitted to be the sequel to the surprisingly successful Snow White and the Huntsman.
Which I find that kind of delightful. At its heart, The Huntsman: Winter’s War just wants to be a fun all-ages fantasy adventure movie. It never gets there, certainly, hampered as it is by the gritty tone of the original film, Neeson’s narration, and spotty plotting to get us from setpiece to setpiece, but the cast is charming and those setpieces are, more often than not, fun and engaging. I give it a lot more credit for having good ideas that it doesn’t execute well than having bad ideas that it executes perfectly.
(Man, Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark really did a number on my critical calibration.)
So, what does work? Chris Hemsworth, of course. He plays Erik as both as a dashing man of action and affable doof, who executes incredible feats of physical strength, before collapsing onto his side and laughing about how this is the stupidest plan he’s ever come up with. Jessica Chastain has less to do as Sara, tragically, but she and Hemsworth have nice chemistry. Emily Blunt’s fragile Freya, who spends most of her time swanning about beautifully and cruelly in her ice palace, is also lovely. But it’s Charlize Theron’s Ravenna that made the most impact in Snow White and the Huntsman, and does so again here, despite only being in about five or six scenes. It is well worth the price of admission to hear just to hear her growl “I have a higher calling,” oil dripping from her lips.
I was also supremely charmed by the unexpected but deeply welcome appearance of lady dwarves. Early in the film, Erik and his two dwarven companions, Nion and Gryff, have a conversation about how ugly dwarf women are that’s funnier than that tired misogynistic joke deserves. I thought that would have been a one-off joke, but it becomes, charmingly, the major subplot. The whole crew falls afoul of Mrs. Bromwyn and Doreena, a pair of treasure hunting lady dwarves in, respectively, flavors sassy and sweet. Mrs. Bromwyn holds forth on how “he-dwarves” are ugly abominations, hitting on Erik while she invites herself and Doreena along for the adventure. And then Doreena and Nion find themselves making a real human (dwarven?) connection despite the fact that their culture encourages very poor gender relations. I was surprised by how much I loved them. I suppose it’s because you simply never see lady dwarves in fantasy films. (Wide shots don’t count, Peter Jackson!) They’re not jokes, they’re engaging characters, and their skills are necessary to save the day.
And, of course, one of the major selling points for me were Colleen Atwood’s costumes, which are all muted, sensible, and character-focused—except, of course, for the queens. I particularly enjoyed Mrs. Bromwyn’s hunting skirts, dirndl, tattoos, and Padawan hair, complete with what appears to be a rooted fascinator. But all shall tremble before the queens, whose gowns and war gear are stunningly and lusciously bonkers. Surcoats of spiked chainmail! Spiked panniers! Ceramic owl masks! A cloak of oily golden feathers! Dressing for infanticide in a slinky gown accessorized with a ventail and feathered eyebrows!
True, the whole kit and kaboodle ends in compulsory heteronormativity for everybody, with all the subversive women dead, which is garbage. But it’s fun, perfectly serviceable, and probably forgettable. And that’s hugely reassuring to me.
I saw this film in theaters.