After seeing Snow White and the Huntsman four years ago, I again realised that the days of temperate fantasy — of weepy princesses and noble princes — had been tossed out the back of the truck. Censorship had almost been abandoned except for the very young. Everywhere there sprouted movies in which teen girls fell in love with vampires; Marvel and DC Comics introduced moral ambiguity into their narratives; and, in general, rowdy scripts and amazing cinematic legerdemain reigned.
Many influences were at work, feminism among them. Then there was the addictive immersion in computer games — a new way to evade reality. Still, the great shift in what is allowable in cinema has far to go. Kids now know all about sex, violence sifts through the planet, heroes are abjectly innocent of the consequences of their acts.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is not exactly a sequel to Snow White, though a number of big players in that film return to live out what happened before the killing of Queen Ravenna (Theron), who cast the sleeping spell on the fairy-tale girl (essentially invisible here), and then what ensued.
At its centre is Eric the Huntsman (Hemsworth), trained by Ravenna’s sister, the Ice Queen Freya (Blunt), to be an emotionless killer; but who is enraptured by one of his fellow child-soldiers, Sara (Chastain), setting in play an immense saga as they first lose then regain each other. The old Grimm Brothers’ account is put aside.
Eric and Sara make up the fierce centre of events. Though fairly chaste, they are continually either in conflict or in each other’s arms. Their dialogue is never less than edgy, and onscreen they dominate — though one regrets not seeing more of Theron as Ravenna or Blunt as the Ice Queen. The misery of Freya (named after a Norse goddess whose domain of power includes the frozen lands) is deepened by the murder of her love-child, and one’s heart turns to her even as she wreaks bloody revenge.
The look of the film is grandiose, but often derivative. One can see the imagery of Disney’s Frozen; flutterings in deep, dark forests recall elements of Avatar; and behind it all lurks the fantasy universe of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tellingly, the director, Nicolas-Troyan, was in charge of visual effects for Snow White.
We re-enter the weirding world. But now, instead of the former seven dwarves, there are four (Frost, Brydon, Roach and Smith). They reluctantly join Eric’s mission to overthrow Freya; trade obscenities; yet eventually pair off like hideous lovebirds. More monstrous are the goblins, and, of course, the savage battle scenes.
In such stories, the Evil Stepmother (Ravenna) is eventually defeated. Winter’s War invents a form of reincarnation for her by means of a magic mirror that can tell you "who’s the fairest of us all" but also sucks out the spirit of those who stare into it for too long. The device suggests not merely the universality of evil, but even some flaky theories of psychoanalysis.
One question always asked of such films is whether the shock effects serve a purpose. If they do, and are well done, and strong acting carries its weight, the critic is in a position to answer the related query: "Is it worth seeing?" Of Winter’s War I must counter, after seeing all that shape-shifting, treachery and cruelty — what’s it for?
The film simply doesn’t advance our understanding of the inner life of the major players; nor how seriously we are to take the film’s white-knuckled pretensions of actually putting together a satisfying trip to the land of Faerie.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach, Sheridan Smith