Rarely has the lead character from a famous fairy tale been booted out of her own story’s sequel, yet that is the fate of Snow White in The Huntsman: Winter’s War**.
Played by Kristen Stewart in the 2012 franchise originator, Snow White and the Hunstman, we don’t even glimpse her in flashback (or forward), merely hearing about how well things are going in her happy kingdom. Perhaps she was just too boring to bother about.
So this film – billed as a prequel, tho it’s a bit sequel and sidequel too – concentrates on the blossoming of the butch Hunstman himself, necessitating a lot of back story/prologue, nudged along by a portentously rich voice over telling us this story “came long before the Happy Ever After”. It’s also a tale of two sisters, thus taking an early stab at that live action remake of Frozen. With a bit of Brave. And Tangled. And Maleficent.
Charlize Theron is the evil Queen Ravenna – we know she’s evil because she plays chess in an off-the-shoulder gown split to the thigh. She doesn’t like the idea of her sister Freya (Emily Blunt) falling in love and having a child, so she cruelly scuppers that relationship and heartbroken Freya turns all Ice Queen and retreats to her own kingdom, far to the north.
So far north is it, in fact, that people there are forced to do a Scottish accent. I’ll let Jessica Chastain have the benefit of that doubt, anyway. For it is in this freezing realm that she, as red-haired Sara, and Chris Hemsworth’s Eric, are taken as child soldiers and trained as Freya’s elite squad of Huntsmen.
Freya, ice queen that she is in her chainmail dress, with her grief-white hair and wolf-like pale eyes, has forbidden all love in her kingdom. Bad news for now grown-up and hormonally aroused lead warriors Eric and Sara, whose illicit passions in the land’s only hot tub enrage Queen Freya. She builds an ice wall between them, to freeze them asunder. Or something.
Cramming in so much set-up and new fairytale “origin” isn’t easy and, to their credit, the writers Evan Spiliotopolous and Craig Mazin, achieve it with economy, leaving the effects and design teams to splash the cash with handsome palaces, killer dresses and raging goblins.
The film eventually settles into a quest movie (complete with wobbly rope bridge scene), as Hemsworth’s Eric joins up with some comedy (yet unfunny) sidekick dwarves – yes, there be dwarves – played by British comedians Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, who get lots of lines about how ugly female dwarves are before hooking up with a pair played by Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach. It’s all puzzlingly un PC, this bit.
Anyway, they’re off to find the Magic Mirror (it’s more a cross between the Rank gong and the Wimbledon Ladies Tennis trophy if you ask me), which Snow White has sent away from her kingdom so that no one should look into its evil powers, only to find it was hijacked and stolen en route to a place called The Sanctuary. Was it going for a spa weekend?
There are more fairytale realms to cross, a sylvan glade with red squirrels and hedgehogs with flowers on their spikes, as well as goblin lairs and, yes, more ice, with just enough time for Emily Blunt to ride in on a Polar Bear. Blunt’s good, but still she’s no Tilda Swinton.
It’s all fairly silly but unfortunately the film makers don’t quite realise it – along with banning love, decent gags seem to have been outlawed, too.
Still, there a lot of fights involving sticks and axes and good old bows and arrows, and the climax brings about a hefty dollop of star power and CGI magic as the themes of love, betrayal, sisters and dwarves slip and slide over the slushy floor of the Ice Palace. It is here that debut director Cedric Nicholas-Trojan flexes his Oscar-nominated visual effects credentials. Don’t expect much awards love for him on this one, though.
Hemsworth carries off Eric with his customary beefy swagger, having taken instruction from compatriot Mel Gibson’s Braveheart accent. Chastain is clearly not at her most comfortable in this nonsense yet she hurls herself into the ninja archery with gusto, game face squarely set to on.
Perhaps because she’s too busy concentrating on her archery and Scott-ish accent, there’s no real spark between Chastain and Hemsworth, leaving this as competent-enough fantasy fairytale mash-up that tries to appeal to a young Game of Thrones crowd alongside fans of Lord of the Rings, Disney cartoons and the current live action reboots. It is boringly, crushingly competent but utterly without feeling.
As all else fails, at least it’s a movie smart enough to know that, frankly, you can’t beat Charlize Theron, covered in gold, shooting lethal spiky tentacles out of her midriff.