Friday, April 22, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War movie review.

When Alice in Wonderland became a worldwide box office success, it set into motion the brief fad where classic fairy tales and literature were given largely revisionist treatments, giving the source material a darker edge. One of the most obvious examples was Universal's Snow White & the Huntsman, the second of the competing Snow White adaptations of 2012 (the other being Mirror Mirror). Though not a runaway success, Snow White was the more generally successful movie.

Much like Alice, it took the originally lighter and whimsical story and gave it a more Gothic edge. Much like Alice, its reception was generally mixed, though it was praised for its impressive technical pedigree. Also like Alice, in 2016, it sees the release of a sequel that absolutely no one was asking for, but we're getting it anyway. In other words, it's no surprise that The Huntsman: Winter's War turns out to be absolutely irrelevant by the end.

Since losing her baby at the hands of the child's own father, the ice queen Freya (Emily Blunt) has lived secluded in her giant fortress, kidnapping children to serve as her personal soldiers, and forbidding those children from feeling love. With news spreading of the death of her sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron) at the hands of Snow White, her personal army is sent to recover Ravenna's corruptive magic mirror for Freya's own devious purposes. Not intent on seeing it fall into her hands, her former pupil and huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) sets off to find it before her soldiers do, and along the way, discovers that the woman he loved (Jessica Chastain) is still alive.

The Huntsman suffers from an unusual issue for sequels in that it renders much of what transpired in the previous film to be moot. Despite advertising placing heavy emphasis on the film being "the story before Snow White", it's actually an odd prequel/sequel hybrid with all of the choppy splicing that such a description entails, but veers in a completely separate direction from the original. With few members of the original cast actually returning (Kristen Stewart has thankfully gotten away while she can, and has been replaced by a body double), and it sharing little in common with its predecessor, the whole film is unfortunately burdened by the fact that it has to create a whole new story formed around heavy world building that most franchises would have done in earlier entries already.

The entire set-up of the film, and much clunky exposition is hastily established by an uncredited Liam Neeson serving as our narrator, and its with these diversions that the film is never properly allowed to run at full steam. But what's even lazier about it is how the filmmakers didn't seem to actually watch the first movie all over again to get even the smallest of details right, as in addition to being both prequel and sequel, it also serves as a soft retcon to events that previously transpired. In other words, the movie becomes one long, glaring contradiction that, at least in its prequel stages, succumbs to the classic case of questions that were far more interesting than the actual answers, even negating the impact of the emotional responses that were felt.

One key example of this was seen in the demeanor of the widowed Huntsman, whose wife was murdered years before the events of the original took place, leading him to the life of a lowly drunk at the end of his rope. It was an atypical performance for the normally charismatic Chris Hemsworth, giving the role all he could and toning down his usual charms. Here, and while this is in no way to say that Hemsworth is bad, he feels like a completely different character altogether that barely resembles his original counterpart, with the filmmakers allowing him to drop the brooding and embrace more of his Thor-like persona. It certainly doesn't help him that Jessica Chastain, as talented and as beautiful as she is, just doesn't share much of a connection with him as Sara, nor do we in the audience, given that the obviously strong marriage between the two that Eric talked about in the earlier film that was clearly formed by years of built up loyalty and love is boiled down to all of a few days before tragedy strikes.

It also pulls an almost romantic-comedy style of irritating misunderstanding between the two that either one of them (especially Chastain) would easily be able to see was just a ruse, but neither of them are ever able to put the logic together. It's also important to note that, in one of Snow White's most memorable scenes, it's revealed that Sara was murdered by Ravenna's brother Finn, a revelation that made it all the more satisfying when the already loathsome snake finally got his comeuppance. Here, that entire event is completely altered, robbing that same scene of its impact. It's also interesting to note that Finn doesn't even make an appearance in The Huntsman, nor does anyone mention his name as if he never existed.

In his place, a character that never once was seen or even implied in the original film, is Ravenna's little sister Freya. What reason would the studio have for revising the entire lore of the world, and pulling a brand new character out of thin air? Simple: Frozen-envy. It's no secret that the original film's creation was owed mainly to the success experienced by their rivals at Disney, so in a further attempt to capitalize on the success of their enemies, the studio directly lifts whole personality traits and concepts from Frozen's Elsa verbatim, right down to her "conceal, don't feel" outlook on emotion, to the fact that Emily Blunt's wardrobe (admittedly *gorgeous* work courtesy of Colleen Atwood) emulates the same exact fashion. Poor Blunt's talents are sadly laid to waste in the film, essentially doing exactly what Charlize Theron did in Snow White, but without any of the confidence or the venom. Her general motivation and morality flips back and forth spontaneously, trying to allow us to empathize with the character's frailty, but there's being spontaneous, and then there's just forcing switches on the audiences at the drop of a quarter.

Far more entertaining to watch is the return of Charlize Theron's sinister and deliciously wicked Queen Ravenna. That said, it almost feels like a spoiler mentioning that she even appears in the film, given that she only briefly appears in the first ten minutes, and disappears until serving a crucial role in the last act of the film. But, her character is advertised everywhere, so it's not exactly a surprise going in, and just as in the first film, she is easily the most memorable performance in the film. Once again donning her stylishly Gothic wardrobe and shooting death stares at every character who opposes her, Theron continues to relish chewing the scenery with gleeful disdain and maliciousness, slipping back into the vile tyrant's skin like slippers, and giving the movie a shot of much needed adrenaline that's sorely missing when she isn't around.

In The Huntsman's defense, at least the filmmakers still have a good eye for the visuals of the film. The film is directed by the original VFX supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, taking over for Rupert Sanders, and the man's experience with the craft is evident all throughout the film. Once again, the film looks fantastic, as the production design and the CGI are all given such strikingly beautiful and frightening imagery (even if the latter pales in comparison during certain scenes), and also like the first, it's costume designer Colleen Atwood who becomes MVP of the entire production, with even more of her beautiful Gothic costumes on glorious display. But all that style can only mask the other deficiencies of the film so much, from action that rarely kicks the movie into high gear, to grating comic relief provided by several dwarf characters, one played by returning cast member Nick Frost. At the end of the day, it's a very pretty looking film that has nothing to chew on beneath the surface.

Feel free to criticize Snow White & the Huntsman all you want, but at the end of the day, at least that film had an actual coherent vision, while The Huntsman: Winter's War cares very little in how it actually expands on its lore, or how frequently it contradicts it. Much like Robert Stromberg with Maleficent, Nicolas-Troyan is clearly more at home perfecting his visual beauty in favor of supplying the characters with actual depth, and there's only so much that great actors can do under inexperienced direction. One part of me does have an admitted soft spot for all of the dazzling imagery, but I highly doubt I'll manage to remember much beyond that come the end of the year.

** / *****

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