Careful what you wish for. When it was announced that Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt would be joining Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth for the followup to 2012’s humdrum action/fairy tale Snow White and the Huntsman, many filmgoers, myself included, got unduly excited. The original film, while a hit, had not been memorable; its main claim to fame was probably the public discovery of an affair between star Kristen Stewart and very married director Rupert Sanders. The second one, sans Stewart or Sanders, and featuring an entirely new story, seemed to presage a fresh beginning. And the idea of three of our finest actresses — performers who can truly go broad, like the finest onscreen divas — hissing and bellowing and making those wavy-magic-hand gestures at each other while decked out in elaborate medieval fantasy regalia … well, it seemed like it might be something special. Campy, perhaps, but special. Something you might want to yell “YAASS QUEEN” at.
Funny story: It appears that the makers of The Huntsman: Winter’s War had the same idea, because the film absolutely delivers on the scenery-chewing front. And yet, it's still hollow and joyless.
The story is both prequel and sequel. It begins years before the events of the first film, opening on the beautiful Ravenna (Theron) seducing and killing her way to the throne of a new kingdom. Her sister Freya (Blunt), however, isn’t quite as ruthless; at the coronation, Ravenna sees her making doe eyes at a handsome young vassal. Soon enough, the new queen engineers a harrowing heartbreak for her sister. This both puts Freya in touch with her secret power — she can instantly transform the people and things around her into ice — and turns her against the very idea of love. She seizes a kingdom in the north and begins raising an army of stolen children. Among them are young warriors Eric and Sarah, who will grow up to be Hemsworth and Chastain. Very illegally in love, the two run afoul of Freya, and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them.
At this point, the film actually jumps forward seven years, to a period following the events of Snow White and the Huntsman — a misstep, since I’m not sure anyone actually remembers what happened in that movie. Ravenna has allegedly been vanquished and killed. (Yeah, right.) Eric is enlisted by Snow White, now the queen, to find Ravenna’s magic mirror, which possesses an evil, seductive power — and which has gone mysteriously missing. (We don’t actually see Snow White, mind. Stewart’s not in the film.) He sets off on his quest, accompanied by a small coterie of dwarves (don’t ask). Meanwhile, Freya also has her sights set on her sister’s mirror, and she’s raising an army to invade the kingdom of Snow White. Anyway, it’s like Frozen meets Tolkien meets Brian De Palma’s Sisters, but not nearly as good as that sounds.
Winter’s War was directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who worked on the special effects for the first film. He has a facility with the storybook-like visuals, and a nice handle on the actors. Even pitching their performances at an absurdly high level, the cast mostly fares well. Hemsworth's and Chastain’s physicality makes up for their unfortunate pseudo-Scottish accents. Theron sneers and sniffs and slithers with abandon. Blunt is brittle, vulnerable, angry — and when she breaks, it can be glorious. The costumes are ornate, imaginative, and ravishing, and the uncommonly beautiful cast looks great in them.
So what’s the problem? Nothing seems to have any weight or consequence. Stewart's absence shouldn’t be a problem; she’s an entirely different type of performer, who would be totally out of place in this heated, histrionic atmosphere. But I missed her, or at least the idea of her. We keep hearing of Snow White’s kingdom, her armies, and what’s going on with her — but we never really see any of it, which really becomes a problem in the climax, which is all about saving said kingdom.
Meanwhile, Freya’s backstory, about how she became an ice queen and learned to despise love, never has much bearing on the actual tale. In Frozen, Queen Elsa’s inability to control her powers led to her exiling herself to an ice palace of solitude and regret; the movie turned on her sister’s belief in her fundamental goodness. Here, Freya’s heartbreak is dropped in at the beginning and the end; in between, she’s mostly just a standard-issue villain with unclear aims.
There's nothing in Huntsman to hold its pieces together. Everybody’s acting up a storm, but nobody expresses any urgency or aspiration or desire — and, what’s worse, none of those great actors have been given any memorable lines. It’s a quest narrative where nobody cares about the quest. It’s a war movie where nobody cares about the war. It’s a fantasy where nobody cares about magic. And sadly, the more they all snarl and shake and shout, the more we notice that there’s very little for anyone to get worked up about.