I cannot hate The Huntsman: Winter’s War. I could find reasons to hate it - it’s not a good movie, after all - but there’s something about its confused weirdness (and blithe badness) that I find endearing. This is a movie that exists only to serve a corporate mandate, that has no narrative purpose (or drive) and that is set in a world literally no one alive cares about, but all of these things add up to a bizarrely off-kilter work that, against my own better judgment, charmed me.
Both a prequel and a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, the film starts years before the first movie and offers us a glimpse of The Huntsman’s (Chris Hemsworth) origin. Once upon a time the evil queen from the first movie, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) ruled side by side with her sister, Freya (newcomer to the franchise Emily Blunt). When Freya’s baby is killed in a ‘mysterious’ fire, she fulfills the legacy of all women in her family and manifests super powers - she turns into Elsa from Frozen. Her heart as cold as her hands, Freya leaves to start her own kingdom up north, and she decides to fill the baby hole in her life by kidnapping local children and training them up as her army, which she calls her Huntsmen because that’s the name Hemsworth had in the first movie. It makes no sense as they’re just a regular army.
Anyway, the titular Huntsman grows up alongside a Merida-from-Brave wannabe, Sara (Jessica Chastain), and they share the one thing forbidden in Freya’s kingdom: love! And a hot fuck session in a glacial hot spring. When their tryst is discovered the lovers are broken apart and the Huntsman is made to think Sara has been killed. Then he wanders over into Snow White and the Huntsman, whatever happened in that movie happens (does anyone have strong memories of that one? At all?) and this film then picks up some time later.
Long story short, Huntsman and two dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon) go off on a quest for the magic mirror from the first film, and along the way they meet some lady dwarves (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach) and then discover Sara isn’t dead but is in fact mad at the Huntsman, thinking he abandoned her, and then they wander into a pretty decent D&D module where they fight kobolds but the movie says they’re goblins and then they go to the north and fight some evil queens.
You know, I don’t like writing out the plots of movies in my reviews, but the reality is that The Huntsman: Winter’s War doesn’t actually HAVE a plot and so just describing the characters leads to an outline of the whole film. It’s a series of sorta connected events that more or less are attached by the passage of time. It’s incredibly loose, like they just kept on making it up as they went. And that looseness extends to the structure of the whole movie - each of the film’s acts feels like a totally tonally disconnected thing unto itself. I quite liked the second act, where everything gets silly and light-hearted and I was reminded of Willow; ie, a movie that’s pretty bad but is engaging in its own way. The first act, a dirge of sorrow, is kind of a bummer. The third act, where the two queen sisters have a magical cat fight, is almost campy enough to be great. It gets right up to the right level of camp but just misses the boat.
What I found really charming about the whole thing, though, is how clearly this film is aimed at women. From the constant romance - there’s more kissing in this film than in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined - to the general fierceness of the female characters, this is a film that is clearly targeting an audience that loves fantasy just as much as the men do. And I think that’s really great. I just wish that the filmmakers understood that women like great scripts as much as they like all these other things.
Because The Huntsman is filled with talent outside of the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Ted Cruz’s old roommate Craig Mazin. The movie is just flinging talented actors at the screen, and newbie director Cedric Nicolas-Tryon can compose some nice shots, and his storytelling (such as it is in a movie with little story) is clear. The FX work is often pretty great, with some of the FX looking photoreal while other sequences feature more heightened, cartoony looks that bring a level of fantasy to this movie that was sorely lacking in the grim, mud-splattered first film.
Chris Hemsworth is charming as hell. Jessica Chastain… well, Jessica Chastain really goes for it! There’s some nice action with her character! Emily Blunt is actually wonderful as the broken-hearted ice queen. And Charlize Theron! Charlize is just going all in this time, bringing it right up to drag queen levels of camp. She’s really putting her back into it in this movie, and clearly having the best time.
All of these people are doing good work, but they’re hamstrung by the script and the movie’s inability to settle on a tone. But within that troubled, scattershot and unfocused movie is the room for really weird things to blossom. The film is taking from any and all sources it can - riffing on Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings and Frozen and The Hunger Games and probably a dozen other things, The Huntsman becomes a strange stew of modern fantasy tropes that don’t really work together, and that leads to weirdness. It leads to concepts established and abandoned - like the magic mirror being a One Ring-esque whisperer of temptation - and imagery that doesn’t really make any sense - like our heroes sitting in a pastoral forest meadow filled with CGI animals who look and behave like they escaped a Disney cartoon. It’s the kind of movie where magic is undefined, meaning anything can happen from scene to scene, and where humans perform feats of almost godlike ability when the story demands it.
So no, The Huntsman: Winter’s War isn’t very good (and there’s no war), but it is odd. It’s an artifact of a studio trying to find a foothold in the new wave of fantasy properties, trying very hard to earn itself the sort of franchise that inspires Tumblr memes and devoted cosplay. The film won’t do either of those things, but maybe in 20 years a whole generation of kids who grew up on its stubborn oddness will turn it into the next failed fantasy film to have a following, a la Legend or Krull.