Back in 2012 the promising-looking Snow White and the Huntsman, a darker take on the classic fairy tale, failed to set the world on fire and has since been forgotten about by most who watched it. This completely unnecessary, and frankly surprising, new entry to the franchise, detailing events preceding and following those in the first film, seems set to experience a similar fate. This generally mediocre by-committee fantasy lacks scale and a clear vision, and again squanders an all-star cast, including new faces Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain. Uneven performances, a confused narrative and an imbalance of tone – the narration alone deems it to silly for adults, and yet it possesses woefully miscued jokes that are too adult for youngsters – overshadow some elegant costumes, amusing supporting performances and mildly thrilling action sequences.
Helmed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman making his directorial début – not a surprise – The Huntsman: Winter’s War shifts the focus of the story to the eponymous Huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), the origins of his training and his love for fellow warrior, Sara (Chastain). Raised in the icy northern kingdom under the rule of Queen Freya (Blunt), who has retreated there following the sudden and unexpected death of her infant child and betrayal by her evil older sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), Eric and Sara are among the kidnapped children raised to be Freya’s protectors. They find themselves re-united years later (after the events of Snow White) as Freya seeks the Magic Mirror long kept safe in the Snow White’s kingdom. Eric and Sara, having defied Freya’s teachings and wanted for their treachery, will stop at nothing to protect one another and stop the mirror falling into Freya’s wicked hands.
The script is derivative and perfunctory but I was never sure whose story this was: Freya’s and Ravenna’s or Eric and Sara’s. The two are entwined but the muddled drama ricochets around without much consideration. The continuity between this and the preceding film would also surely buckle under lazy scrutiny. Liam Neeson’s unfathomably literal narration takes a long time to explain the bond between the glittery-frocked sisters, but confusingly this ends up only bookending the film. Revenna had her go in Snow White I guess. Snow herself is curiously absent and mentioned only by name – what, Kristen Stewart didn’t want to come back? Freya disappears for long stretches in the second half as Eric, Sara and their companions battle the threats on the road to recovering the mirror and warding off the doom-laden repercussions of failure.
What little chemistry is present between Chastain and Hemsworth is entirely due to the former. Hemsworth’s wandering accent and mumbled charm is a charisma-void, much like in the preceding film. He’s just not a very interesting character – a hunky thrill-seeker with a gift for wielding axes. Though Chastain fumbles her ridiculous accent too, she at least stays true to her character on an emotional level. Amongst the many inspirations for this film, Chastain’s Katniss Everdeen get-up is rather unsubtle.
Freya’s story is certainly the most interesting here, and Blunt does her best to keep some resemblance of humanity for her ruthless ice queen. British funny men Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, after some initial awkward misfires, are consistently quite funny as the lively Dwarf sidekicks, but it is only when they are joined by she-Dwarfs Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach that this unit works at its best. They account for most of the film’s welcomed humour. One misjudged joke from Chastain’s character is so dirty that there were audible guffaws of shock from my audience.
The world, explored much further in Snow White and the Huntsman, just doesn’t seem to possess enough scale, with most of the set-pieces taking place on what are clearly…sets. Freya’s ice palace is the most impressive technical achievement, and Blunt and Theron’s over-extravagant costumes are distracting enough, but the film’s inventive aesthetics are never supported by a compelling story. It could have been refreshing to see two rival sisters fighting for the control of the kingdom, and a female warrior kicking ass, but it is all just rather dull.
But, be warned, at the end of this rather dour affair, Neeson’s narrator returns to promise that there is more to come. Seriously, what else could this now dangerously stretched-thin franchise have to offer?
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Writer(s): Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin
Starring: Emilt Blunt, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon
Runtime: 114 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: April 7, 2016