The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)
By this sequel/prequel movie, we have suddenly entered the The Snow White Chronicles, or, more accurately because Snow White herself doesn’t really appear here, The Snow White Cinematic Universe, perhaps. This film concerns the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) who was once tasked to kill Snow White in the fairy tale, but didn’t.
In what was once a throwaway character in a short fairy tale, the huntsman is now given an origin story. It turns out that the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) broke the heart of her sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who then turns into Elsa from Frozen. She flees to the north, becomes an ice queen and makes an ice castle. Since she no longer believes in love, she forbids everyone in her new kingdom to love. No matter that her kingdom only ever seems to consist of about a hundred people. Anyway, I suspect that because of the ban on love, no one is having babies, so Freya steals children to train them as child soldiers. These are her Huntsmen.
But wouldn’t you know it, Huntsman Chris Hemsworth falls in love with Huntswoman Jessica Chastain, and they make love in a showy Jacuzzi. Chastain was contractually obliged to appear in this movie via a deal with Universal, but she does a fine job. Except for her fake Scottish accent, which also is a challenge too far for Hemsworth. The rest of the movie concerns a lot of twists and turns about love and trust and betrayal.
The film feels small scale and a bit slow paced with a thin story that is partly recycled from the first film. It loses itself a bit in little side gags with side characters, and although Nick Frost tries his best as a dwarf, the humor falls flat too often. Somehow, the comedic tone doesn’t fit. And generally the film feels like it is shot in only a handful of locations. It is basically Beautiful People Roleplaying. Hemsworth is charming but his recurring problem is that he cannot carry a film as an involving protagonist, and the three actresses Theron, Blunt and Chastain all out-act him. I wished though that Emily Blunt had taken some more notes from Tilda Swinton and her White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia.
The film’s biggest plus is some strong visual work, although there are too many CGI animals thrusting their growling mouths into the screen. It has a palette of white and gold that mixes well. Also, the forests have some kind of Miyazaki fairy tale quality, with little sprites and wisps, and some gorilla-like goblins.
Show White and the Huntsman (2012)
I’m seeing these films backwards, to be sure, but it is immediately apparent that this film has a much greater sense of scale and weight to it than its sequel. It has actual castle grounds that you could touch instead of computerized models, and lots of background actors so that you feel like you are looking at an actual populated kingdom. This is a much stronger start than The Huntsman (2016).
Snow White is like a grimdark version of the original fairy tale, with the light and colours muffled so that it almost looks like back and white. Charlize Theron clearly has a lot of fun playing an evil queen. She hardly ever blinks her eyes and shows a barely-repressed anger. It’s good casting. It’s a pity that 15 minutes into the movie, the character Snow White switches from the talented child actor Raffey Cassidy to the blander Kristen Steward. I guess being locked away in a tower for 7 years muffles one’s emotions. She also mysteriously has leather pants.
From the moment K-Stew escapes from the castle, nothing makes much sense but I recognize a handful of references to Lord of the Rings and the old Disney animation. The ending seems copied from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). The darkness actually sucks the enthusiasm out of it for me. At least Hansel & Gretel (2013) had a light touch to it. So what we are left with are Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Steward both acting like blocks of wood in an incessantly dour film where everyone falls into the medieval mud all the time. Steward and Hemsworth are stubbornly thrown together into the same scenes for two hours, as if to force chemistry between them. But it never happens.
The visuals are all quite ok, with a nice swamp and a fairy forest and a nice troll and so on. Especially the fairy forest and the dwarves raise up the whole film a great deal, and suddenly it is worth paying attention to. But the hour it takes to get there feels like an eternity.