The story of The Huntsman: Winter’s War is an interesting one, but it never quite comes together. That’s true whether you’re talking about the non-existent fairy tale behind the film’s plot, or the Hollywood shuffling behind the film’s creation (which I won’t go into).
The film covers a span of time that surrounds the first film, but doesn’t seem to quite account for it sensibly, and follows the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) from early childhood, and Ravenna’s sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), before even that.
We enter the film as Freya, living in the shadow of her powerful sister, is betrayed by her lover, which sparks her own magical power. She heads north to conquer her own lands as the Ice Queen. With her own spin on “raising” an army, she kidnaps children to train to become her elite forces. Enter Eric, the Huntsman, and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Freya, “cold” not being something to underuse, tells these children that love is outlawed… or whatever.
Writing that Eric and Sara fall in love feels redundant, but such comes to pass, and Freya is not pleased. The Huntsman manages to survive being chucked in a river, and he’s off to eventually find his way to the first film. It seems that his backstory might make much of the that film implausible, in the “not coming up” sense, but there we are.
Now squarely in a certain present, the Huntsman is given the task of retrieving Ravenna’s magic mirror, because after Snow White had it sent to a mysterious place of safety, it didn’t show up. You might guess that Freya will find herself involved in the film again.
While the film manages a fair bit of adventure, and the actors are all giving you the right hooks that pull you along, it never quite delivers its own story. Brought to you by the writers of Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure, and The Hangover II & III, and directed by someone without other credits, the film feels at almost every moment like something crafted by a committee of money men who didn’t want anyone involved who might push back against their decisions.
It’s a feeling that is unfortunately too familiar. There’s a stopwatch on how long we can go without a chase, or a sword being swung, no matter what the characters might have to talk about. Side trips to flaming goblin/apes are shoved in, because we haven’t had a wobbly bridge yet, and monkeys tested well with our focus group. The setup narration went through four different teams of lawyers to make sure that it insinuated Frozen as much as possible, while leaving us safe from a lawsuit. You know the drill.
An action/adventure take on the realm of fairy tales needs a decent helping of derring-do, but getting to the story here requires far too much work on the part of the audience. In the end, you’ll leave the theater wishing you could pick up the book, and imagining the detail and complexities that might be woven around the Freya/Sara comparisons, but that’s not storytelling.
It’s really a shame, because there is a truly great fairy tale here, and we might easily have ventured into the as yet unprecedented territory of a film being adapted into a wonderful book that enters the halls of classic stories children grow up loving. Somewhere, not actually to be found within the film itself, is an amazing story of love, betrayal, how people change and manipulate us, coercion with “good intentions,” the shock of reevaluating our worldview, and love… yes, I said it twice.
The highlights are there, much as the gist is to be found in even a poor summary, but it is almost as though the film wishes it could get rid of them as well. If only it had another corny idea for dwarves to present themselves as mostly ridiculous, or an excuse for the Huntsman to meaninglessly fall onto a roof from a great height.
The sufficiently young will likely find this a treat, but only because they don’t have any of dozens of other films under their belt. Others won’t find themselves wholly disappointed, but it leaves a strange taste in your mouth when a film is not crafted in order to best serve its story, but simply as the output of an ROI algorithm.