Imagine you’re in a script development meeting at Perfect World Pictures and decide that you really like certain elements of Frozen, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Maleficent, Time Bandits, Game of Thrones and other big fantasy productions and just toss all your ideas in the blender. You then send the entire script to the special effects house, along with a big check, and figure that with so many cultural touchpoints and a stellar cast, you’re good to hit $250mil in the first 60 days.
But what did freshman director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and writers Craig Mazin and Evan Spiliotopoulos forget? A storyline. Ah yes, that tedious element that turns a montage of visual effects into an actual movie that makes sense and takes the viewer on a journey — ideally a hero’s journey in the case of a fantasy — with its requisite villains and darkness prior to the comeuppance and satisfying resolution. Storytelling 101.
Instead The Huntsman: Winter’s War offers up a very confusing mess of a storyline that brings back a number of characters from the more coherent Snow White and the Huntsman, the latter at least being based on the well-known Grimm fairy tale, albeit retold to bring a lot more action into the story. In fact, Frozen and Winter’s War owe much to a Hans Christian Andersen story called The Snow Queen, which is why there’s so much similarity in the story.
In Winter’s War, the sorceress Ravenna (Charlize Theron) watches with loathing as her younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt) falls in love with the handsome Duke of Blackwood (Colin Morgan). Unable to see her sister happy, Ravenna enchants the Duke to commit a heinous deed so dark that Freya finds her own magic — she can freeze things and create ice walls at will — and becomes the ice queen, so full of hate towards love and emotion that she heads to the desolate north and creates her own ice kingdom where she outlaws love and kidnaps children and trains them to become part of her Huntsmen, her army questing to bring darkness to the rest of the kingdom.
In the group of children kidnapped to become Huntsmen are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), who fall in love, even knowing it’s forbidden. When Freya learns of it (through her owl spies, a nod to Clash of the Titans) she tricks them into believing the worst of each other and we follow Eric who is heartbroken and adopts the life of an outcast, far away from Freya’s castle.
Until word comes down that the magic mirror that predicated all this mess in the first place has been stolen. If it’s acquired by Freya, that’d be bad, but if Ravenna gets it, that could be doom for the entire kingdom. And, finally, a quest for our heroes, as Eric and Sara are reunited, along with the entertaining comic relief of dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), Gryff (Rob Brydon), Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach), all of whom are clearly inspired by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Yadda, yadda, happy ending, bad guys die, good guys all kiss and find happiness. cue sunset, bring in horses.
There’s just barely enough storyline to propel the action forward but after about fifteen minutes, I realized the key to enjoying The Huntsman: Winter’s War: Imagine that it’s actually the realization of a Dungeons & Dragons RPG adventure, not a movie. Suddenly scenes like the sword fights, the battle in the humble tavern, the long shots of the quest towards Sauron’s Lair, um, I mean Freya’s castle (or was it Ravenna’s castle?), even the introduction of sprites, fairies and trolls all made sense. Of course the goblins were terrible fighters: if you roll your D20 well, you can overcome any foe with some smarts.
At that point I just relaxed, enjoyed the beautiful visual effects and found the rest of the movie rather watchable, more so than the vast majority of critics. Walking into the theater I had certain expectations of performances too, but was surprised to find that the actors delivered decent performances, notably Charlize Theron as Ravenna. In the first film she was so flat as to come across more as a stand-in, but in this second installment she was fierce, aggressive and a good villain. Special props to Nick Frost in his recurring role as Nion. He and his (digitally created) dwarven posse were the much needed comic relief that made the plodding storyline much more endurable.
Nonetheless, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is entirely forgettable. Great visual effects aren’t enough to produce a successful movie and we’ve all become somewhat blasé about them. A good film still comes down to a good story, a likable protagonist and a quest that’s simultaneously challenging and understandable. We don’t even need a happy ending or an unambiguous one (see Inception or All Is Lost). But we still need a story.
My recommendation: Wait for the movie to show up on your local pay channel, unless you’re such a fan of special effects that you can tolerate two hours of banal and amateurish storytelling.