I remember leaving Snow White and the Huntsman—less commonly known as The Swan Song of Bob Hoskins—thinking that its last third belonged in a better film. That’s a multifaceted if not many-splendored sentiment: throughout the film, Kristen Stewart is arrestingly down-to-earth when the script calls for it, Charlize Theron is a terrifying storm of vanity as Queen Ravenna, and the dark-fantasy aesthetic endemic to today’s teen fiction does surprising justice to a familiar fairy tale. In an otherwise meandering film, every factor of my enjoyment culminates in a hectic battle that recasts Snow White as a hero in her own right and revitalizes a villain once calcified by the curse of Disney iconicism. Theron’s Queen wouldn’t be caught dead disguised as an old crone. Conversely, The Huntsman: Winter’s War falls short of even calcification by offering nothing worth calcifying.
Winter’s War is the worst kind of sequel: a film that fails to stand on its own merit, shackled to its predecessor yet missing what made the previous film tolerable. Chris Hemsworth, the first film’s Huntsman, returns as our leading man, stripped of the aloofness that made him intriguing. He’s on a quest to rescue the dying kingdom of Snow White—who doesn’t appear in the film—at the behest of her husband Sam Claflin, who appears solely to set him on said quest. Snow White’s lands are threatened by the armies of the Ice Queen, whose borders seem limited to her frozen fortress. The Ice Queen seeks Ravenna’s Magic Mirror, which will grant her the power to conquer the world . . . somehow. As if to drive the incompleteness home, Hemsworth is accompanied by only four dwarves.
A brief, suitably chilling prologue introduces Emily Blunt as Freya, the sister of the evil Ravenna, who plans to destroy all love with her army of huntsmen. Such is Hemsworth’s origin story: kidnapped as a child and raised to be an emotionless killer. He falls in love with Jessica Chastain, his female counterpart in Freya’s gender-blind mountain horde. Yet from the moment the focus leaves Freya, Winter’s War turns aggressively fragmented. We’re treated to a montage of training and longing looks, but never are we quite let in on what draws Hemsworth and Chastain together before their seven-year separation. A “Once upon a time” is generally all the establishment a fairy tale requires, but most fairy tales aren’t two-hour high fantasy epics. Hemsworth channels Thor’s boyish intensity against Chastain’s frigidity, but without any personality beyond their relationship, their dynamic lacks motivation and passion. Neither of them are complete without the other, a notion that’s romantic on paper but does violence to their charisma as individuals.
That’s an especially grim diagnosis for a film with such a small cast. Hemsworth and Chastain are joined by four dwarves, all of whom unevenly split a single comic role among themselves. Nick Frost and Rob Brydon provide all but one of the film’s laughs, and occupy a nebulous space between a dim-yet-boring Alexandra Roach and a rough-spun, foulmouthed Sheridan Smith. It’s a shame that Smith is so underused, because her character seems to have stolen all of Chastain’s charm.
Yet in cataloguing this film’s misuse and neglect of its components, the setting emerges as the ultimate victim. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the dream team of writers at the helm: Evan Spiliotopoulos, fresh from a string of straight-to-video Disney sequels, and Craig Mazin, whose bizarre, headline-hungry obsession with former roommate Ted Cruz is still more entertaining than his writing for Scary Movie 3 and 4 and The Hangover II and III. The production design serves these new Snow White films well—best of all in the faceless, Faustian reimagining of the Magic Mirror—but we’re left starving for a closer look at the world their one-note characters occupy. Tar-blooded, gold-plated, simian goblins exist solely as an obstacle to reclaiming the Mirror. Moss-covered lizards and curious fairies stir wistful memories of Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre. It all amounts to gorgeous window dressing on a distilled soullessness.
The same applies to the plot. Liam Neeson’s narration refers to Freya’s growing empire and military successes, yet a single early village raid and a laughably small excuse for an army preclude any notion of world-shaking power. As far as the audience can see, her nation’s boundaries don’t extend far beyond her home base. Snow White’s kingdom is purportedly decaying under the Ice Queen’s influence, but none of its citizens are there to attest to it. Chastain insists that she and Hemsworth have done terrible things, that their crimes make them unfit for love; unless returning alive from the wars is unforgivable, we have no reason to entertain her pessimism. The all-corrupting spectre of the Magic Mirror is supposed to evoke the One Ring, but as in the first film, its demonic personality is a mere afterthought, particularly in the final act. We’re meant to believe that Freya would be unstoppable without it, but Ravenna certainly wasn’t—and she had everything her sister didn’t, notably arable land and an economy capable of sustaining a war.
But despite Freya’s tenuous grip on believable menace, the evil queens are the strongest characters in this film. Blunt’s Ice Queen is heartless yet fragile, frequently stumbling over her grand pronouncements, taking refuge in her screeds against love and devotion even as her sister erodes her authority. And Theron’s Ravenna graduates from evil sorceress to nigh-immortal demon, seizing the viewer’s imagination from the moment of her resurrection. Her thirst for beauty and power is perhaps the sole aspect in which Winter’s War builds on the original fairy tale, as it blends her selfishness with infanticidal bloodlust and a palpable immortality. It’s a performance that almost begs a third film to finish her off. In resurrecting the Queen for my generation, Theron embodies the cruelest excesses of Jessica Lange’s Tamora in Julie Taymor’s Titus: hateful, beautiful, and patient, commanding respect and allegiance on pain of death.
While we’re on the subject of Shakespeare, one recalls the Bard inviting us in Henry V to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, encouraging the viewer to conjure the battlefields of the Hundred Years War within the limits of the stage. It’s a touch tragic that director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan can’t achieve the same with $115 million and a kingdom’s worth of gorgeous CGI at his disposal. Winter’s War takes place in the midst of a war we barely see, fought between a force barely worthy to be called an army and a band of personality traits scarcely fit to be called protagonists. Piece out those imperfections, and you might as well make your own movie.