The Huntsman: Winter’s War is partially a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman and partially a sequel. The plot has a timeskip in it, and the narrator — Liam Neeson, somehow — says “that entire movie happened in this spot.” It’s half-and-half. It’s a psreequel.
It’s a mess, is what it is.
The prequel part of the movie focuses on Freya (Emily Blunt), the ice queen — a sorceress with poorly animated ice powers who thinks love is the root of all evil named after the Norse goddess of beauty and fertility? OK — little sister of Ravenna (Charlize Theron) from the first movie. Freya falls in love with and has a daughter with another woman’s fiance. The lover promises to leave his betrothed and marry Freya in secret, but the night they were to elope, he instead burns their child alive*. Mad with grief, Freya develops an immediate power over ice. She establishes a kingdom in the north and raises an army of child soldiers to expand her territory and enforce her land’s one rule — there can be no love.
Two of these child soldiers are Eric (Chris Hemsworth, Conrad Khan as a child) — Eric? Seriously? A step away from No Name Given is always a step down, but Eric? And I suppose Clint Eastwood’s Dollars Trilogy character is named Jim, or something — and Sara (Jessica Chastain and a brutal Scottish accent, Niamh Walter as a child), who, of course, fall in love and decide to escape. Displeased, Freya kills Sara and leaves Eric for dead. Then, after the timeskip, some more characters from the first movie show up and tell Eric Ravenna’s magical mirror has gone missing. Surmising that Freya has stolen it and its power would enable her to expand her boarders even further, Eric, with the help of a few dwarves only there for comic relief and the not-surprisingly not-dead Sara, sets off to stop her.
The most interesting thing about this movie is its relationship to its predecessor and the behind-the-scenes drama that shaped its making. Winter’s War seems to have been made compulsively, as if the studio reached for the green light the same way someone who is full reaches for another potato chip. Looking at the movie’s development, nobody was really sure why they were making another movie in this set. In some ways they wanted a sequel, in some ways they wanted something completely different, and it shows in the final product. The whole movie is a misshapen quilt of callbacks, common plot points and complete departures from the first movie.
Very few people liked Snow White and the Huntsman — I’m one of the few who did, it’s since become one of my favorites from 2012 — and it made money but not the kind that absolutely demands a sequel. It opened at no. 1 with $56.2 million, then immediately fell to no. 3 with Prometheus and Madagascar 3 chasing it next weekend. Most of its critical panning revolved around the unpopularity of star Kristen Stewart, then at the height of her fame with the final Twilight movie five months down the road. Since she was such a lightning rod, and also since she and director Rupert Sanders were caught sleeping together two months later, she was not invited back, but her character’s absence is felt. They even do that awful cameo shot from the back thing that’s normally reserved for presidents. I have to imagine this is what one of those Spider-Man spinoffs Sony was talking about that wouldn’t actually include the webslinger would feel like.
With the intent completely unclear as to whether Winter’s War is trying to build on Snow White, correct it or piggyback off of it, it would at least be nice to think that the creative team had even seen the first film, but there are enough retcons here to make your head spin. Eric’s backstory in Snow White, that he met his wife after he returned from the war a stone drunk, is completely erased. Ravenna’s little brother from Snow White is erased, as is her desperate witchcraft origin story. That same brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), taunts Eric in the first movie, saying he raped and murdered his wife. That’s also obviously incompatible with Winter’s War. These aren’t small scenes they’re ignoring, these are major plot points and details that give Snow White its depth.
Taken on its own merit, watching Winter’s War feels like being beaten to death with a pickax. The movie wants desperately to be about love conquering all, but the only way it really expresses this idea is through dialogue that’s tied itself into all kinds of knots to get in the exact phrase “love conquers/doesn’t conquer all.” It strongly recalls last year’s awful Cinderella remake, which did the same thing with “have courage and be kind.” This is annoying and ineffective because film is a visual medium, and narration and dialogue are its crudest tools. If you want to communicate something through film, you have to do it through action. Winter’s War actually does have the moral it verbally espouses with its story, but by the end of the movie you’re just sick of it.
That’s saying nothing of the movie’s jumbled catastrophe of a plot. Time skips are almost never a good idea and require much more thorough consideration than was given here, and the off-screen issues that colored the transition from Snow White to Winter’s War were handled less than gracefully. Just as Stewart wasn’t invited back for off-screen reasons, several characters get on-screen cameos simply because their actors were willing to return — namely William (Sam Claflin) and the dwarf Nion (Nick Frost). Nion is joined by three more dwarves, Gryff (Rob Brydon), Doreena (Alexandra Roach) and Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) as comic relief filler characters who all fall in love with each other to service and beat down the theme even further.
When a movie gets this bad, the little points of goodness about it start to stand out, and the outrage becomes not at how bad the product is but at all the ways it could have been better. The arc of this series as three stories, with the first one released being the middle one, is interesting, and it would have been fantastic to see Winter’s War split into two movies — a prequel, then a sequel, instead of this — with a trilogy evolving into a meditation on power. The prequel would focus on the ice queen and her pain and Ravenna’s role in it while also seeing Eric’s training, then the sequel would see Ravenna’s mirror corrupt Snow White, a concept Winter’s War touches on but doesn’t explore because producers were afraid to tackle the casting issues. This setup would also make Sara a much stronger character. Presumed dead in the original, she would be introduced in the prequel and reintroduced in the sequel. The audience would have a full movie to get to know her, and she’d spend more than a half hour being dead. The other aspect of executing this properly would be to have her actually change and come back as a completely different character after her ordeals, leaving Eric to try and mend a relationship that is fractured by more than just time and miscommunication.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.
*He actually does this under the influence of Ravenna, who was instructed by her mirror that the daughter would become fairer than her but the daughter’s death would release her sister’s power. This is a major reveal for the movie, but the trailers spoil it.