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Friday, April 22, 2016

Moview Review: 'The Huntsman: Winter's War'

The Huntsman: Winter's War is passable but entirely forgettable popcorn entertainment.

Review by Matt Cummings

One of the pleasant surprises of 2012 was Snow White and The Huntsman, a deftly managed fantasy flick with perhaps the most polarizing female in film (Kristen Stewart) alongside a very capable cohort in Chris Hemsworth. It went on to amass over $360m worldwide and made me not want to vomit at seeing Stewart. Fast forward to 2016 and a follow-up is ready for instant franchise establishment. But while The Huntsman: Winter's War is nicely shot, it's only passable popcorn entertainment, entirely forgettable, and even blandly predictable.

Long before the adventures of Snow White (Stewart), there was the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her tender sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who herself has magic powers that have yet to emerge. But when her child is murdered by her deadbeat father, Freya (and her heart) apparently turn into The Ice Queen. As Ravenna continues to practice the fine art of Black Widow on unsuspecting kings, Freya sets up a kingdom for herself, using kidnapped children as soldiers. Two of them - Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) - become her finest but whose love is illegal in Freya's kingdom. When she discovers their secret, Freya orders Sara's death, touching off Eric’s dark journey which is covered in the first film. As the years pass, Eric is visited by William (Sam Claflin), who is worried that the influence of Ravenna’s golden mirror has turned White insane. When it disappears en route to its destruction, Eric is sent to find it with an odd assortment of dwarfs including Nion (Nick Frost) and his brother Gryff (Rob Brydon). As the team makes it way to the mirror' location, Eric learns of a diabolical cover-up that will shake his world to its foundation, while Freya moves to secure the mirror and its unlimited power.

One could look at the title for The Huntsman: Winter's War and realize right away that something's not right. This is not a film about Snow White's continuing adventures - which it should have been - but a pre/sequel that bolts together pieces of Lord of the Rings, Seventh Son, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, expecting us to forget its central character. To see White struggle against the power of the mirror, while Eric leads a crack team of Huntsmen to secure its destruction, would have been more emotionally involving than what we got. Early on, all the pieces are laid out: we know that Eric and Sara will patch things up, that Ravenna will fail, and that love will triumph because bad is somehow dumb. None of this turns into the rousing success of Deadpool, nor wreaks of the gut-churning failure that is Alliegant or Norm of the North, finding itself in some kind of film purgatory that's destined to be immediately forgotten.

The Huntsman: Winter's War is also blandly predictable, following a nearly robotic gameplan: insert plot point, then a serious moment with serious music, followed by a slow-motion sequence with a long shot of our heroes, and a joke or two before moving into an action sequence. This repeats throughout, with Hemsworth taking over for Stewart, whose extra-marital affairs seems to have written herself out of one of the only appealing female-centric stories in recent memory. But this is where Universal went wrong: instead of simply re-casting a cheaper (and frankly less-polarizing figure), they went in a male-centric direction, ignoring that this series primarily focuses around Snow White. Winter's War feels quite disconnected from the original, especially when the character is only mentioned in passing. There's also little that's memorable here: at least the original sports the best version of the Enchanted Forest, a truly magical (no pun) scene as White meets the great White Hart.

Instead, Winter's War makes an almost Herculean effort to cast some of the brightest female stars in the business, while providing most of them with the least amount of dialogue possible. It's no joke that Blunt, Chastain, and Theron could have (and could have) run this film, but Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin's efforts suggest they know only the periphery of the Snow White legend. This is just like the actor who claims they've read "every Marvel comic" on a character, and then proceed to demonstrate that they very little knowledge. When Blunt and Theron appear together, you can feel the chemistry of two sisters who distrust and come to despise one another. That alone could have produced many excellent moments, and early on we think that's what's coming. Then, the film rockets past the original and disappears into predictability, leaving the end for their big bear hug. And their throwdown feels neither epic nor personal, like two actresses acting on yet another soundstage with little idea of how to imbue their characters with a dose of humanity. Chastain is the show-stealer here as Hemsworth's wife; she chews on her Scottish accent, besting Hemsworth both in terms of style and substance. And yet the big reveal here is so poorly handled that all Chastain can do is look at Theron without saying a word before disappearing back into the castle.

One might read my rants and think I actually hated it. Not true: it's not awful like The Fifth Wave, Gods of Egypt, Norm of the North, Barbershop, or any of the literally dozen flicks that bring up the rear in my 2016 list. Winter's War sports great CGI (even after the amazing spaces imagined in The Jungle Book), the costumes are impeccably assembled, and the music by James Newton-Howard is big and should play well on XD and other related systems. But there's never a sense of urgency here, no worry about Ravenna or Freya's motives, and the reveal about Eric's lost love takes a lot of energy out of this story's sails. Winter's War feels like Universal purposely left out Stewart, thinking that a well-cast shell game over there wouldn't expose its core problem over here. A recast would have produced better results, and you'll see why if you decide to give this one a chance.

The reaction of our test audience surrounding The Huntsman: Winter's War felt a lot like the other swords-and-sandals epics we've been forced to consume lately. That's not the smashing of swords you're hearing, but a distinct thud over a genre that's suffering from fatigue. But it's not like this one didn't try; I can't sau the same for the already long litter of 2016 failures. Filled with some of the best leads in the business, Winter's War still fails to separate itself both from its predecessor and other better-crafted works, touching off a discussion of Stewart's whereabouts rather than a meaningful discourse about the film itself. Look for it to get pummeled this weekend by The Jungle Book and fade fast as summer feels ready to make us forget it. And we're sadly sure to do so.

The Huntsman: Winter's War is rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence and some sensuality and has a runtime of 114 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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