In 2012, Universal devised a way to turn Snow White into an action film, in which the titular character fled from her torment at the hands of her wicked stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron), put together an army, and kicked ass. It wasn’t very good.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War – which acts as both prequel and sequel to Rupert Sanders’ 2012 picture – makes the key decision to jettison Kristen Stewart’s Snow White character altogether, focusing instead on titular axe-wielding Scotsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and his love Sara (Jessica Chastain) as they battle against the forces of the Ice Queen (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s sister. This was a wise decision. Stewart’s Snow White never really worked for me and so having more of Eric makes sense, but this film is also helped enormously by a better – and crucially, more fun – script.
With this storyline, the film is cheekily having its cake and eating it – reminding us at key moments that this is the same world but, despite the presence of Eric and Ravenna, it’s really a different beast. Whether it was always intended to be this way, I’m not sure – a widely publicised scandal revolving around the personal lives of the cast of the first film may well have contributed to Snow White’s absence from this project.
The film’s premise is explained to us – at rather laborious length – in an introduction (really, the first act) in which the Ice Queen is established as a domineering figure who, as a result of a tragedy in her past, demands that her subjects show no emotion and be as cold as she is. Two of those subjects, Eric and Sara, make the crucial error of falling in love and are separated. Later, when the magic mirror from the first film goes missing, King William (Sam Claflin, very briefly returning from the 2012 film) enlists the huntsman to help find it and prevent its power falling into the hands of the Ice Queen. Don’t bother yourself with questions about why the Ice Queen was never mentioned in the first film, or why she appeared to be sat around doing nothing while her sister’s empire was destroyed. If the film can ignore that, so can you.
In truth the introduction, although well staged, is stodgy and overlong. After we jump forward seven years, things really pick up. The quest is established, Eric and Sara are reunited, and a supporting cast of dwarves – two men, two women – join Eric’s search party. Thanks to the length of the first act, the actual search for the film’s MacGuffin is rather underwhelming (and not really adequately explained), but proceedings are livened up enormously by the cast. Nick Frost (the only returning member of the eight dwarves from the first film) and Rob Brydon as bickering dwarf brothers bring some genuine laughs to proceedings, as do Alexandra Roach and, in particular, Sheridan Smith, as dwarf women who join the party. You’d have thought Chris Hemsworth would’ve practiced his Scottish accent a little after the first film but, alas, his word mangling continues, only this time he has a partner in crime: Jessica Chastain struggles valiantly with the same task. Thankfully, accents aside, the two of them are on good form. Hemsworth is as charismatic as he usually is, and funny, while Chastain, who kicks as much ass as her partner, is a winning foil.
The new director is Cedric Nicolas-Toryan, who was second unit director on the first film, and who was nominated for an Oscar for his visual effects work thereon. That choice made me nervous for this film – a first time director best known for action and special effects being given a huge budget could’ve gone wrong – but Winter’s War is, for all its flaws, a perfectly decent fantasy romp, and certainly better than the first one. Nicolas-Troyan has taken the visuals of the first film (which were one of its few saving graces) and improved upon them but, impressively, also shows a good feel for the dialogue sequences and helms the action well too. I saw the film in 3D, which added nothing. Are we still doing the 3D thing after all this time?
By the end, of course, Ravenna must be reintroduced to tie the two films back together (sort of) and Charlize Theron gets to walk around being unbelievably silly in fabulous hair, this time with added spiky tentacles. I was enjoying myself enough by that point to ignore the cracks in the narrative and just go with it.