“There’s another story – one you have not seen,” insists narrator Liam Neeson, whose voice is so recognizable it hardly matters that his name remains uncredited. Unfortunately, even though his delivery is typically enough to convince audiences of anything, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” proceeds to prove him wrong. The story is so commonplace and derivative of other popular fairy tales that it is absolutely not a new telling of anything at all. From “Frozen” to “Conan the Barbarian” to “The Hunger Games” to “The Lord of the Rings,” this latest follow-up to an inexplicably successful property copies so many ideas that it’s impossible to pick out any fresh material whatsoever.
While calculating temptress Ravenna (Charlize Theron) seduces kings and murders them to ascend to power, her younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt) pursues the ideals of romance and becomes enamored with a young man promised to another. When she’s brutally betrayed by her lover, the heartbroken young girl leaves her sister and heads to the lands in the north to create her own kingdom – one where love is outlawed and fear, intimidation, and bloodlust are the only virtues. Raising all her conquered enemies’ children to be her soldiers, Freya creates a massive and ferocious army.
Despite her oppressive rules, Freya’s best huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and her finest archer, Sara (Jessica Chastain), fall in love – only to be savagely separated when the embittered queen uncovers their crime. Years pass and Eric goes on to aid Snow White in vanquishing Ravenna in the southern lands, revealing a short era of peace. But it’s not long before Ravenna’s magic mirror is discovered to be harboring a powerful evil, prompting Snow White to entrust Eric in disposing of the relic. When Freya learns the whereabouts of her sister’s mystical heirloom, she becomes determined to acquire it first, forcing Eric to embark on a dangerous quest to stop the “ice queen” from attaining the almighty artifact.
Even though Charlize Theron whispers or growls her lines solely to portray evilness or formidability (like Batman, it would seem), it’s not enough to hide the pitifulness of the dialogue. When the first act is composed almost entirely of references to chess moves, it’s obvious how generic this plot of good-versus-evil will turn out. At the same time, every gesture, no matter how insignificant, is emphasized for overdramatic grandeur, embellished with slow-motion movements and run-of-the-mill grimaces or intense stares (the modern-day equivalent of stroking a curvy, oily mustache). And then there’s the strange attempt to create sympathy for the loveless, merciless child soldiers and their eventual perpetuation of the cruel indoctrination of other young slaves.
Nevertheless, the loss of Kristen Stewart in this prequel – which bizarrely acts as a sequel simultaneously, thanks to its jumps in time and the humorously suspicious onscreen absence of Snow White herself – should have been a boon to the production. Instead, it’s possible the result is something as bad or even worse than before, with unexplained magic run amok and lavish set designs and special effects that trump any attempt at storytelling and character development. It’s evident through Theron’s costume, hair, and makeup changes – even during the course of a single scene – that the focus of this film dwells on visuals over plot. And while those visuals are fairly impressive, they can’t distract enough to make the movie effective.
In the end, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” becomes just another indistinguishable medieval combat or swords-and-sorcery fantasy epic. PG-13 axe fights are forced to use confusing editing to hide any potential bloodshed (as well as the PG-13 sex scene that awkwardly conceals nudity before hastily cutting to black), while henchmen huntsmen employ exhaustingly standard forms of villainy to ensure audiences don’t accidentally confuse them for protagonists. The storyline regularly goes off in tangents, such as bringing up a quest to overthrow Snow White, despite the fact that she’s not relevant to any of the ongoing activities, or questioning who the fairest person in the land might be, even though that has nothing to do with Freya’s kingdom-conquering objectives or even Ravenna’s reincarnation ambitions. It’s all so sloppily mixed together and poorly written, even though the A-list cast opts to take their parts seriously (save for the dwarves, who serve absolutely no purpose outside of comic relief – and, amidst all the current controversy about actor inequality and Hollywood whitewashing, aren’t played by real little people). At least, audiences are treated to the new moral that love can conquer ice.