Review: ‘Winter’s War’ looks pretty, but there’s no reason for a ‘Hunstman’ sequel

Last week, I rewatched Snow White And The Huntsman, and then went back to read my review of the film. I think I liked it more the first time. I found myself impatient with it on a second viewing, and while I still think there is some terrific world-building in it, I just don”t care about the story the film tells. The one thing that it most certainly did not do was make me want to see a second part of that story. None of the characters grabbed me as a viewer, and the story wasn”t left in a place that asked any questions that felt like they needed to be answered.

But this is the age of the franchise, and so any story worth telling is obviously worth telling at least twice and hopefully as a trilogy with potential ancillary spin-offs, right? Sure, the original Grimm stories were folklore collected both for their cultural and their literary value, stories with clear beginnings, middles, and conclusions, stories built largely around moral metaphors or social mores, but what really matters is sequels. It”s telling that the director this time is Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film”s visual effect supervisor. This is his debut feature, and I”ll say this much for him: he certainly knows how to make a film look pretty, especially when there are visual effects involved. From scene to scene, there are some beautiful images in the fantasy world where this is set, but frustratingly, it never adds up to something that comes to life. This feels like terrific production design and costuming in search of a story worth telling.

The script is credited to Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, and apparently their marching orders were to ignore the first film”s story and just use whatever elements they like to craft something loosely connected. This is both prequel and sequel in form, but considering how little the events of Snow White And The Huntsman matter, it”s almost funny to watch how they avoid the first film here. There”s one shot of Snow White in the film, and it”s from the back and from across a room. She”s mentioned a few times, but only in passing, and only as an off-screen force to be dealt with later. Sam Claflin shows up for one scene, but if I hadn”t just seen the first film, I wouldn”t have recognized him or had any idea what relationship he has to anything. In the first film, Theron had a brother who was incredibly close to her, to a disturbing degree, and yet in this movie, there”s an entire prequel plot involving Theron that doesn”t seem to mention the brother at all. Instead, this film is all about her newly-introduced sister Freya, played by Emily Blunt.

It would be incredibly cynical of me to assume that this film exists more because of the success of Frozen than the success of the first Huntsman. It”s hard not to make that connection, though. Freya has no magical powers at first, but when tragedy breaks her heart, it unlocks a potential in her that Theron says exists in every woman in their family. Freya”s power turns out to be the control of ice and snow, and to make sure the metaphor gets hammered home, she declares love to be the greatest sin in her kingdom, completely forbidden. Get it? She”s cold. Get it? GET IT?!

Freya begins razing villages, murdering the adults and claiming the children and forcing them into her army. They are trained from childhood, turned into Hunstmen, presumably the most badass fighters in this entire fantasy world. Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain both begin their training as kids, then grow into Eric and Sara, the two best Hunstmen. Of course they fall in love, and when Freya finds out, the prequel part of the film comes to a tragic conclusion, fast-forwarding to seven years after the events of Snow White And The Huntsman. The magic mirror of the vanquished Ravenna (Theron) still exists, and Freya”s been slowly but surely conquering all the northern lands. Now she wants her sister”s mirror, and for some reason, Eric ends up being the one person who can go and get it. He”s given Gryff (Rob Brydon) and Nion (Nick Frost), two of the dwarves, as his back-up.

What”s really weird is how the trailers are selling a totally different story than the one that the film actually tells, and I find it such a weird disconnect that it makes me wonder why Universal didn”t just tell that story if that”s what they wanted to do. The trailers look like the entire film is about a war between Freya and Ravenna, with Eric and Sara stuck in the middle. Nope. That”s not it. A big chunk of the film is just a quest to find the magic mirror, with two lady dwarves (Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) along to provide lots of hilarious dwarf-oriented sex innuendo and a detour to a goblin forest. By the time the film does finally get around to putting Ravenna and Freya together again, it”s all basically set-up for the big action finale, and then it”s over. There”s no urgency to any of it, and while I think both Hemsworth and Chastain are more than capable as actors, neither one of them has a character to play here. They flirt, they fight, and they emote as hard as they can, but they don”t have enough to play to make any it feel like it matters or like they believe any of it.

Theron knows how to go right over the top as a bad guy, and she”s got about fifteen good minutes to vamp it up here. But it”s just her doing the same thing she did in the first movie. It”s not connected to anything around it, and it feels like something she could have shot in one day. The entire film has this modular feel, like each individual sequence was conceived separately and works independently of any other scene in the film. But that also means that nothing feels like it”s connected to anything else, and none of it matters. It”s just pretty actors running around on pretty sets while pretty visual effects erupt around them. There”s some weak lip service to some feminist revisionism towards fairy tales in a few early scenes, but none of those ideas are followed through in any significant way. It is, at heart, a hollow event, franchise filmmaking as obligation rather than any sort of genuine storytelling need. Between this, Maleficent, and the Alice In Wonderland movies, it is safe to say that I don”t like the way producer Joe Roth brings fairy tales to the bigscreen. I think these films all seem like excess for the sake of excess, empty stages that have been exquisitely prepared. You can throw all the money in the world at these things, but unless there”s a story worth telling filled with characters that are actually compelling, it just doesn”t stick. Three days after seeing this, I”m hard-pressed to tell you much about the movie that isn”t simply surface-level. When you”ve got a piece of smart and sincere movie magic like The Jungle Book playing for families this weekend, it”s hard to recommend you waste your time with something as plastic and pre-packaged as this.

The Huntsman: Winter”s War is in theaters this Friday.