As half-prequel, half-sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, The Huntsman: Winter’s War pretty much nails everything that was fun about the first film (namely, the Huntsman and the Evil Queen Ravenna) and leaves behind the less arresting bits (eg: Kristen Stewart’s Snow White). If you liked the first movie, you’re going to like this one. If you didn’t, then I’d be shocked if Winter’s War changes your mind.
The beginning of the movie explains the origin of Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and identifies the source of his deep font of manpain, Sara the Huntsman (Jessica Chastain). It also brings us a new evil queen, Ravenna’s little sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who has her own utterly tragic reasons for being evil and wearing some incredibly beautiful costumes. Freya, driven into the depths of despair by the murder of her infant daughter by her would-be husband, decides the best way to deal with all that pain is to conquer the entire north (lots of planets have a north) and take all available children so she can craft them into an army of badass, leather-jerkin-wearing super soldiers who are admonished that only chumps believe in love. Eric and Sara are among these children and as they grow up, they develop a forbidden love for each other, which Freya Does Not Take Well.
Fast forward seven years to after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, and we find Eric once again living in the woods and apparently avoiding baths if his hair is anything to go by. He’s dragged back into the world of having to interact with other humans when he’s told that Ravenna’s mirror has gone missing, and sets off to find it before Freya does.
This movie is utterly gorgeous, far more so than the first. There’s actual color, and lots of it. The costumes that Freya and Ravenna wear alone deserve to have a shrine built to them. The story is pulpy fantasy fun, as are the action sequences. The comic relief dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon) are well overmatched by the absolutely delightful she-dwarves (Sophie Cookson and Alexandra Roach). It’s predictable in places, and a bit weirdly discontinuous with its own mythology in others (more on that later), but all in good fun.
And it’s actually a fantasy movie that manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, believe it or not. Ravenna and Freya manage to have some evil queen back and forth that does not center around men. The main casting is delightfully female heavy: two male dwarves, two female dwarves, one male huntsman, one female huntsman, and two evil queens. Lovely! I was also charmed by the equal partnership between Eric and Sara–and Sara’s fierce independence as she tells Eric, “I choose for me, not for you.” She has an excellent speech about how their relationship is not determined by the man passing some test and then she has to love him. It’s a nice jab at fairy tale tropes when that normally is what it boils down to. Ravenna remains the most compelling character of the franchise, though I’m not sure I’m on board with the implicit statement that both evil queens have their magic because they have eschewed love and family for various reasons.
Winter’s War is ever so slightly less lily-white than Snow White and the Huntsman. There are non-white background actors in Freya’s kingdom, which is… something. Sope Disiru plays another of the Huntsman, Tull, who has a speaking role and feels curiously like he should be much more vital to the movie than he really is. I came out of the film wishing I knew more about him, his motivations, his relation to Sara and Eric, because he feels like he must have been pulling some narrative weight that ultimately (and disappointingly) fell to the cutting room floor. I’m also not really sure about the depiction of goblins in this fantasy land as midnight-black, savage, horned gorilla-like creatures with tar for blood.
I also could have done without the aggressively heterosexual ending, in which every male-female couple possible shows the audience that they will be getting together happily ever after, because love conquers all and saves the day if you’re straight and monogamous, I guess. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being straight, I get that it’s not a choice or anything, but do they have to flaunt it like that?
Not flawless but fun, worth a watch if you want to see Chris Hemsworth run around in leather pants and be cute. As you do.
(A few short, spoilery things below the cut.)
The movie did have some weird continuity hiccups with the first film, so expect to be driven to distraction by them if those kind of nitpicks bother you. First off, when we’re seeing pre-Winter Freya and Ravenna, there’s no sign of their brother Finn. He doesn’t seem to exist in any form, which just seems… weird. Maybe Ravenna’s just the sort to randomly pickup and drop her siblings, but considering how close she seems to be with either of them… yeah.
The weirder, more bothersome thing is that Ravenna’s character development is… odd. Part of what made the character so fascinating in Snow White and the Huntsman was that she seemed to be going through this breakdown, falling deeper into evil through the movie. But the Ravenna we see at the beginning of Winter’s War feels very like the Ravenna at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman. To the point that she murders her own beloved sister’s daughter. It didn’t quite scan for me. Also, she apparently can put the mental whammy on people now, which isn’t really something that ever happened in the first movie. So it’s… odd.