By Kyle G. King. While the Brother’s Grimm tale of a pale German princess named Snow is over two centuries old, the more popular Disney retelling turns a prepubescent 79 this December. And while we’re all anticipating the re-re-re-release of ol’ Walt’s Ms. White (and her seven dudes) from the Disney vault, in the meantime Hollywood seems hellbent on reinventing her fable in its increasingly dull “adult” PG-13 veneer. ABC’s Once Upon A Time runs a Snow White thread through every Sunday, and two live-action movies recently took bites from the same red apple: Mirror, Mirror was a more fun, cartoonish hack at the source material (to less than glowing reviews) and Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and The Huntsman presented a darker, grittier re-telling that slapped Kristen Stewart’s Snow White in chainmail armor. And just like the fable’s evil queen, studios need to constantly feed off the lifeblood of virgins to produce these movies (yes, I bought a ticket, why?), only this time Snow White takes a backseat to Chris Hemsworth’s Eric the huntsman in The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
Serving as both a prequel and a sequel to Eric’s 2012 story, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (a visual effects artist making his feature directorial debut) allows Chris Hemsworth to move through this world with a far more graceful charm (and comedic tone) than its predecessor. Smiling, flexing, and generally being handsome is arguably Hemsworth’s comfort zone (his performance in Rush notwithstanding), which allows the more hefty dramatic lifting to be smartly left to the film’s central female cast. Charlize Theron reprises her role as Ravenna the evil queen, while Emily Blunt is introduced as her love-scorned sister Freya. Then there’s Eric’s young wife Sara, played by a tough, leather-clad Jessica Chastain.
The two magical sisters vie for god-like power as Eric and Sara aim to overthrow them and restore harmony to the kingdom with the help of their dwarf companions. With visual effects that — like Snow White and The Huntsman — controversially cast non-dwarf actors playing dwarf characters, Nick Frost returns alongside newbies Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, and Sophie Cookson, who all provide the refreshing comedy for which this gritty universe demanded the first time around. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a quest film that lets itself be fun, cute, nostalgic, cool, romantic, and even dangerous — the most flexible example that the new-age pseudo-genre has seen yet. (And dare I say… the fairest of them all?)
As entertaining a ride as this redesigned fairy tale decidedly is, it’s far from perfect. The Huntsman: Winter’s War falls poisoned to the tempting juicy apple that is cinematic world-building. As the film established its fantasy, it boasts a pathological refusal to tie up loose ends it creates along the way. It only uses magic to get itself out of storytelling pickles, while simultaneously underestimating its audience’s ability to spot plot holes the film often creates. Theron gets the worst of it, as her inherently melodramatic character is often left with nothing to be other than a costume designers showcase. Top-class art direction in costuming and production design, along with A+ performances and a balanced genre showcase elevate Winter’s War above its previous installment. But a lack of unified respect for its audience and the craft of large scale fantasy prevents the sequel’s empire from striking back (if you get my meaning).
Though the franchise is left with a gaping, Kristen Stewart-sized hole, Nicolas-Troyan is able to put forth a film that is ably carried by its central cast’s strengths. The Huntsman: Winter’s War hits the tone to which modern day fairy tales are obligated. Now if only it could master its own magic.
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.
Produced by Sarah Bradshaw, Palak Patel, Joe Roth, and Chloe Yellin.
Screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, and Rob Brydon.
6 out of 10