by Patrick Bromley
The Huntsman: Winter's War is a movie that no one was asking for. I'm one of the only people who really likes its 2012 predecessor, Snow White and the Huntsman, and even I was not asking for a sequel. This is a movie the seems willed into being by a studio insistent on creating a franchise where perhaps one does not exist. The original film grossed $400 million worldwide despite the fact that hardly anyone has anything positive to say about it. Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that much of that box office was driven by the participation of Kristen Stewart as Snow White, still hot off the Twilight series and starring in another romantic fantasy. That her casting and/or performance was the most widely criticized aspect of Snow White and the Huntsman doesn't appear to have affected its success. The fans were already in their seats.
It's perfectly fitting, then, that in making the sequel no one was asking for, Winter's War also brings back everyone but Stewart (though she is referenced several times and is represented in one shot by a stand-in). It's all part of this movie's bizarre development process; after it was discovered that Stewart and Snow White director Rupert Sanders were having an affair, the talk began that the obligatory sequel would spin off to focus on Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman character and that neither Stewart nor Sanders would be involved. For a long time, the sequel was to be written and directed by Frank Darabont -- would that we had gotten that version -- but he dropped out and duties fell to first-time feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor on the first movie. So here we are, four years later with a sequel no one is asking for to a movie no one remembers, much less remembers fondly.
Describing the plot of the movie is more difficult than it ought to be. Part prequel, part sequel, Winter's War begins many years before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman to show Ravenna and her sister Freya in their younger years. Freya has a child with a man engaged to another woman and that child is murdered, unleashing her powers of creating ice and cold because Frozen came out between Snow White and the Huntsman and this movie and proved to be very popular so why not borrow a little something something from that? Freya begins kidnapping children and raising them as her own personal army that she calls Huntsman because the title needs to be explained somehow. Two of those children grow up to be Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain), who eventually fall in love despite the fact that love is forbidden in Freya's kingdom. Freya discovers their betrayal, killing Sara and banishing Eric for dead.
Nearly everything about The Huntsman: Winter's War betrays its origins as a sequel pushed into development by a studio and going through multiple drafts and iterations before being released as a kind of Frankenstein's monster of ideas and pre-vis set pieces, never a coherent story so much as a bunch of stuff appearing on screen. This is not to say that it's a bad or unentertaining movie. It isn't. There is just enough visual invention on display, enough star power in the cast and enough energy and fun to the proceedings to keep my attention as it unfolded, but there's no getting around the fact that it's ultimately kind of generic -- the last word I'd ever want to use to describe a movie with giant snow wolves and Jessica Chastain firing arrows as a super hot warrior woman.
Hard as it may be to believe, there are aspects of the original Snow White and the Huntsman that make it stand out: the lovely score by James Newton Howard, the gorgeous photography and the impressive eye of director Rupert Sanders, the smart and subversive feminist thematics. Almost all of that is missing in Winter's War, even though James Newton Howard has once again contributed a score and the screenplay tries to say some things about women in the world. The sequel fails to commit to the nerdy fantasy elements the way the first movie did, too, despite taking place in ice castles and enchanted forests. There is no moment as gorgeous or sincere as the one in which Kristen Stewart encountered the unicorn in Snow White. It's just a lot of generic CG -- The Hobbit to the original's Lord of the Rings. They even try to repeat the cool Florence & the Machine song that played over the excellent credit sequence of the original, but Halsey's "Castle" is no substitute.
Blackhat mode. Any movie that has Jessica Chastain beating people up is going to be at least sort of enjoyable. But too often it tries to copy what came before it without understanding what made Snow White and the Huntsman work. That's a movie that's sneakily special despite no one caring about it. The Huntsman: Winter's War forgets the first part and is just a movie no one cares about.