Why make a standalone movie when you can build a franchise? It’s the question every studio in Hollywood has made, especially in the Marvel era of interconnected universes. For Universal, that apparently includes creating a franchise out of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. With the scandal involving that film’s star and director largely out of the public mind at the moment, but not completely, this expansion of the film into a franchise instead focuses on Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman, along with a welcome return of Charlize Theron’s Ravenna. But even with those two returning, along with Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain both joining the cast, The Huntsman: Winter’s War struggles with a woefully underdeveloped script that can’t seem to decide what kind of film it wants to be – though the bolstered cast does help keep this from being an unmitigated disaster.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War plays both prequel and sequel to the previous film, revealing the connections between both the old characters and new. While Ravenna has conquered yet another land, her sister Freya (Blunt) has yet to show any signs of power of her own. A tragic event manages to break Freya’s heart, though, and in the process unlocks her power: the ability to control ice and snow. Newly powered, Freya conquers a kingdom north of Ravenna’s, then proceeds to grow her empire through the use of soldiers she raises from childhood – an army known as Huntsmen. (Of course.)
Two of these children are exceptionally skilled, and when they grow up, these two – Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) – fall in love. In doing so, they break Freya’s one law: no love allowed. The two are torn apart by Freya, and the film jumps ahead to seven years after Snow White and the Huntsman. Ravenna’s magic mirror still exists, and Freya – who’s spent the ensuing years conquering all of the northern lands – wants it. Eric is the only one who can get it, and is urged to rescue it for Snow White’s sake. But going after the mirror leads to surprising discoveries for Eric, in more ways than one.
So…as I mentioned, this film has a lot of issues. The script clearly has some issues establishing tone. It shifts wildly between the three major acts of the film, with the middle act in particular serving more as a comedy like the lighter periods of the Lord of the Rings films. It’s a stark contrast not only from the previous film, but from the tone that the studio has tried to portray through trailers. There’s an implication, down to the title, that a major war is at hand. In reality, the “war” is surprisingly brief. Outside of the beginning, Ravenna and Freya only share some scenes together in the third act. Instead, Eric and Sara dominate the story, but there’s little to either character. Thankfully, both Hemsworth and Chastain are strong actors, so they’re able to sell it to a degree. But it’s hard to really buy into their story.
Instead, even with just a small part of the overall screentime, Theron manages to steal a second film in this series. She knows exactly how campy to play Ravenna, and she leans hard on it. It’s one of the biggest puzzles about this film, actually: given audience response to Theron’s portrayal of Ravenna last time, why not find a way to feature more of her this time? The ads suggest an epic battle between Ravenna and Freya, with Eric and Sara caught in the middle, which is nowhere close to what actually happens. Clearly, someone knows what the audience wants.
Still, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is at least oddly enjoyable, as well as visually pretty. The humor of the film’s middle act is matched by the campy excesses of Theron’s turn in the third act. That’s better than the largely lifeless scenes that dominated Snow White and the Huntsman. But the film’s insistence on keeping focus on Eric keeps the three amazing actresses who complete the film’s main cast without nearly enough material to suit their skills, as well as away from the audience that enjoys her in the first place. Here’s hoping that, should this film warrant another film, they find a way to make a pre-prequel that turns into a se-sequel that allows for Ravenna to dominate every frame of the film.