Inoffensively bland The Huntsman: Winter's War is a baffling change of direction for a soon-to-be-dormant franchise
The Huntsman: Winter's War Universal Pictures
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Screenplay: Evan Stiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, based on characters created by Evan Daugherty
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sheridan Smith, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach and Charlize Theron
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
April 22, 2016
(out of four)
Somewhere along the line, somebody severely underestimated the star power of Kristen Stewart. And thus we have, for our entertainment, The Huntsman: Winter's War, for all those people who saw Snow White and the Huntsman and thought to themselves, "Whoa, I want to find out more about that cool huntsman!"
I cannot even imagine the series of decisions that would result in a budding franchise eliminating its central character and most interesting performer (Stewart), and then trying to keep going with another installment focusing on someone that nobody particularly cared about the first time around. This is not a knock against Chris Hemsworth, who plays the titular huntsman and is a fine actor. But his role is graduating from Eye Candy Who Can Fight to a romantic, dramatic lead. That's a hard sell for a character who has no interesting characteristics.
Imagine if the second Hunger Games movie did away with Katniss altogether and focused instead on, like, Gale or something. (My apologies to the Hemsworth family, I assure you it's nothing personal.) Or if a 007 installment had focused instead on one of the less interesting Bond girls. Or, to stay on brand, if the animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had built a sequel entirely on the back of that silly prince. Whatever Hemsworth's abilities, he is not such a magnetic screen personality that he can make a captivating leading man out of such a dullard as Eric the Huntsman. He's nursing a broken heart and he's handy with an axe. That's about it. Does he at least do some intense brooding, you might ask? Well no, he doesn't. Broken heart or no, he never bothers to brood. In fact, mostly he goes around seeming rather satisfied with himself, what with being able to handle an axe and all. When he's unexpectedly reunited with his lost love, Sara (Jessica Chastain), he turns on the charm, but that doesn't make him any more compelling.
I'm not privy to the circumstances that led to Stewart's exit from what was presumably meant to be a franchise, but the plan B should have been that there was no plan B. Winter's War feels like a production that waited around for its star to show up, and when she didn't, they said screw it and went on without her. "I mean, everyone's already here, we might as well."
Whether Stewart's absence* was her choice or the studio's, what's revealing is the very different career paths (and choices) of this series' current and former leads. Since completing her responsibilities on the Twilight series in 2012 (its final chapter opening a few months after Snow White and the Huntsman), Stewart has aggressively shunned further franchise involvement. Instead she's opted for arthouse and mid-budget auteurist fare - working with the likes of Olivier Assayas, Woody Allen, Kelly Reichardt and Ang Lee - garnering well-deserved acclaim that has essentially reconfigured how she'll be thought of as an actress. If her recent performances have declared anything, it's that these Huntsman movies don't deserve Kristen Stewart.
* Snow White "appears" in one scene of exposition - basically to explain away why she isn't in the movie - but she's turned away from the camera.
Hemsworth, meanwhile, continues to chase prime studio projects - mostly big-budget action movies - while sprinkling in the occasional comic supporting part. But every starring role that does not involve him wielding a magic hammer, cocooned by the safety of the Marvel machine, has been a colossal commercial disappointment, and Winter's War is (or is about to be) the latest. The movie's very existence is entirely attributable to a miscalculation of the star power of Snow White's romantic leads.
Stewart's de-facto replacement is another actress punching far below her weight, with Chastain co-starring as the one that got away. Sara was childhood (and young adult) sweethearts with Eric, both having trained their whole lives to be warriors serving the icy Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) in a would-be kingdom in which love is forbidden. It is forbidden because Freya once lost both her lover and her child, which gave her the bright idea that the entire concept is a deception and must be done away with. In the years since, she has slowly built a burgeoning empire - somewhere to the north of wherever this movie is meant to take place - on the ideological groundwork of a world without love.
I'm assuming that, unless Freya is confused about certain biological matters, lust is still allowed in her empire. Otherwise her budding revolution would quickly die out by default. Perhaps she runs a stringently impersonal procreational brothel on the side. The details of arranging such a society might make for a more interesting movie than this one, in which the presumptive villain is largely absent, and once she shows up is quickly upstaged by her more sinister sister, Ravenna (Charlize Theron).
The script reminds us that Ravenna died in the previous film, and offers a convenient supernatural explanation for her return. Fair enough. But it's all rather transparently disjointed, as if you can feel the producers trying to figure out how to get each of their contracted stars some run. "We'll figure out the details later." Either Blunt or Theron would have made for a perfectly passable villain, but instead both are pushed to the side as we deal with what amounts to a road-trip movie between two reunited lovers and their dwarf sidekicks.
Costume designer Colleen Atwood and production designer Dominic Watkins are among those who return here after working on Snow White and the Huntsman, and those two in particular give Winter's War a certain sense of cohesion with its predecessor even as other elements feel arbitrary or contradictory. First-time feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan rarely injects much life into the proceedings (nor did his predecessor Rupert Sanders, aside from a few moments of visual flair), but the film has enough talented people allowed to kinda do their thing (including Nick Frost, Rob Brydon and Sheridan Smith in amusing supporting roles) that it goes down relatively smoothly. It's just flavorless is all.
The same, admittedly, could be said for the previous film, so it's not as if Winter's War is doing any damage. It's just bizarre that the film, sans Stewart, got made in the first place. Good on her for quitting while she was ahead.