Whether it’s because an audience desires so ardently to love a film that it vents equal-and-opposite wholesale wrath when disappointed, or because a Narcissistic culture confuses displeasure with personal affront, or because the franchise model is beginning to collapse under its own self-created weight – whatever the reason, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is bearing the brunt.
Time was, when a Spielberg or a Lucas could unspool the latest Indiana Jones or “Star Wars” adventure without such scrutiny; the affection may justifiably vary, but there was no jackal-like pouncing upon every detail as though there were a penal code in place. The filmmakers didn’t always get it right, but they enjoyed unconditional love and the benefit of the doubt that came with it. Not so today, where people start channeling the Queen of Hearts. Sadly, the push for a universe that follows every rule we like and deserves punishment for not being what we had in mind seems to have completely eclipsed a world in which we can all enjoy living.
If there even exists a place for an untethered story within the franchise concept, it’s becoming more difficult for the studios to produce one, and for people to embrace it (“Deadpool” being the glorious exception that proves the rule). “But J.J. Abrams can do it!” – and yes he can, and it’s why we trust and adore him; it’s what makes him brilliant in the definitive sense of the word. However, his brilliance doesn’t make others’ work bad by comparison, just less brilliant. “And Peter Jackson can do it!” – and yes he can, and it’s why his ability to create a cinematic “universe” stands as the gold standard. But remember: he did it all at once, under a single inked deal, with all cast and crew assembled and operating in the same creative momentum; once that train left the station, it didn’t stop until Samwise Gamgee closed his front door. “The Lord of the Rings” was also a single story deserving of three parts – not a prequel or sequel fabricated inorganically after the fact, and certainly not one that was split into two or three for financial milking (among them the one Jackson reluctantly took on in order to save the project).
So back to “The Hunstman: Winter’s War”, which is being roundly trounced in the public square after the early screenings. Much of this Sturm and Drang may be laid squarely at the feet of the studios, which is a subject we’ll tackle another day (but if you want that day to be to-day, here’s a scrumptious video essay to get you started – caution for language). Here, however, Universal added real insult to injury by allowing “Winter’s War” to be positioned every which way but the one it actually is: one impression says sequel, another says prequel, another says it’s a battle between the queens, yet another says one brings another back to life, on and on it goes… and not a one them is accurate. In fact, the only synopsis that hit the note was the one in my press invitation, and I’m one of the few who actually enjoyed the film. Hmm…
“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is neither prequel nor sequel; it is self-contained and parallel, with some of its action taking place prior to and simultaneously with “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and some picking up after. Think” Chronicles of Narnia” – readers didn’t cry foul to find that “The Horse and his Boy” was occurring contemporaneously to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. “Winter’s War” is also not “The Dark Knight” or “The Lord of the Rings”, and does not aspire to plumb the darker nature of the soul: it is a fairy tale about love, and as pure a one as can be (including the saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”*). We feel ourselves inside the pages of a green, or purple, or blue, or crimson fairy book… and always remember, it is Winter’s war.
So on that note, please decide for yourself whether or not to see this film, and make the decision based on your own interest level in the world of Snow White as conceived in this iteration of the story. I say “world” and because that’s what it is: not a laws-based “universe” but an imaginative, vibrant, artistic world drawn from a variety of inspirations including Norse mythology, “The Lord of the Rings” (with the rendering of some of the baddies), “The Chronicles of Narnia” (as Freya shares with the White Witch, among other attributes, some scrumptiously nefarious art collection habits), and even an occasional hint of “Legend” and “The Neverending Story”. It draws inspiration from, not follows rules of, and I’ll take a world over a universe any day. (Truly my dream is to see Charlize Theron portray Queen Jadis of Charn, although I rather feel I just have!)
The film does have two fairly serious flaws, one of which can be forgiven, but the other which is a genuinely profound misstep. Not worth screaming for heads over, but definitely worth a scold (and a ding from 4 to 3 stars). The first is in its story, which even for a fairy tale lacks enough layers; the second is with regard to the moments of overlap with “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Where the two touch precisely, those moments must sing like a tuning fork; there were two in “Snow White” that mention the Huntsman’s late wife in a way material to “Winter’s War”, and they should have been pitch perfect. They were not, and are made more egregious by the fact that proper tuning would have required no effort at all, simply the inclusion of Finn and as said in “Thank You for Smoking”, a few lines of dialogue. For that second note, I do heartily concur with the detractors. (Not to mention, I really do have no idea how Freya could make such good travel time on that bear, as deliciously imposing a pair they make.)
That said, these flaws do not undo the sheer loveliness of the production otherwise (and I do love that bear). “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” stands on its own two feet while never pandering to setting up another installment (though of course being a fairy tale, anything is possible – but that is different than crafting a story specifically for setup). It enjoys some funny sidelines, the sensational cast lifts the simplicity of the storyline, and if Colleen Atwood doesn’t win her fourth Oscar for this one, I can scarcely imagine the one that wins.
“Winter’s War” is genuinely enjoyable and hits all the marks it needs to hit (and actually, if you haven’t seen “Snow White and the Huntsman”, it might work just as well or even better). If you enjoy either light escapism, this cast, and/or a freestanding diversion with no agenda, then keep “Winter’s War” on your options list. But whatever you decide to do, decide for yourself.
* Hell hath no fury, and the bank account no justice – the Sony hack revealed to Theron that she was to be paid substantially less than Hemsworth for reprising her role, and she refused to proceed until her salary was aligned to his. Go Charlize.
Story: Unbeknownst to Snow White, the Huntsman’s past includes Ravenna’s equally imperialistic sister, Freya – within whose power it almost lies to take over all realms including Snow White’s, unless the Huntsman and his allies can prevent it in time.
Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Romance
Themes: Betrayal, Love and Attachment, Loyalty, Trust
Starring: Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu
Directed by: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Running time: 114 minutes
Houston release date: April 22, 2016
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened April 19, 2016 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX