The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Compared to its predecessor, The Huntsman: Winter’s War was not a commercial success, and while reasons vary for why a film can fail at the box office, the sad fact for Winter’s War is that it was clear as ice. The controversy surrounding Snow White and the Huntsman provided a dark cloud over Winter’s War that could not come out from under, no matter how interesting the story, well-rounded the characters, or beautiful the visuals. Despite being a wonderful film all on its own, it was saddled with problems that were out of their hands –the most glaring being the lack of Snow White in a Snow White set film. Thus, Winter’s War ended up in the unenviable position of having to tell two stories, ostensibly centered around critical characters to the story of Snow White and the Huntsman without the central protagonist. Chris Hemsworth managed to hold his own, but it can’t help but illuminate one of the final controversies to come out of this short-lived franchise – payment parity.

Set before, perhaps even during, but most certainly after Snow White and the Huntsman, Winter’s War expands on details that the titular Huntsman shared about his life before he became the drunkard introduced in the first film. The Huntsman’s name is finally given (Eric), and the death of his wife sends him on a downward spiral, which is how he was introduced originally. Eric and his wife Sara (Jessica Chastain) are trained by Freya (Emily Blunt) alongside others to become Huntsman – replacing Freya’s lost children by becoming her new children. Freya is an adaptation of The Snow Queen, but she is also the younger sister of Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Finn (Sam Spruell) – Finn is not mentioned or featured in this film, despite his rather large role in the first film. Finn’s absence is even more notable to those who pay attention to characters from one film to the next, considering Freya’s initial plot ultimately resurrects Ravenna. Talk about middle child syndrome.

As mentioned, a portion of the film takes place well before Snow White and the Huntsman, reintroducing the reoccurring plot that Ravenna executes due to her mother’s spell. She is currently married to a king, plotting his death and the overthrow of his court to maintain her youth, beauty, and power. At this time, she also seeks to awaken Freya’s powers, believing firmly that she has them. Freya, though, has no interest in her sister’s plots and schemes, and she has been in a secret relationship with a nobleman (played by Colin Morgan), something that doesn’t sit well with Ravenna, especially when a child is born of their union. The mysterious death of Freya’s child finally awakens her latent powers, and in a scream that could shatter glass, she is revealed to have power over ice, which she promptly uses to kill the one responsible for her child’s death: Her noble lover. Unfortunately, anybody who knows anything about Ravenna can probably figure out what happened long before the eventual reveal spells it out.

Still, Freya’s powers also awoke a coldness within her, and she ran away to build her own kingdom – something that retroactively probably inspired Ravena’s long-term control of Snow White’s kingdom. Much like Elsa, Freya builds a castle of ice and begins to steal children to raise them as her own. She trains them into loyal Huntsman, dedicated to her and only to her – because love is a weakness that she refuses to let corrupt them. Sara and Eric, though, find love with one another in this dark and twisted army of Freya’s, which spells doom for both of them when their affair is discovered. But, while Eric and Sara are made to believe that their’s is a love doomed to failure, it truly isn’t.

Despite how Freya manipulates them, their feelings for one another are far too strong to be ignored when they are finally reunited. Freya seeks to play their worst fears against them. She achieves this by making Eric believe that one of their friends has killed Sara in cold blood and convincing Sara that Eric simply abandoned her.

Despite Kristen Stewart not being involved, her storyline continues off-screen – with the mirror having seemingly started to speak to her, driving her mad and ordering it to be taken to a safe, magically secure location. This plan would fail and require William (once more played by Sam Claflin), Snow White’s husband, to request that Eric find it before it could fall into the wrong hands. As I mentioned in my review of Snow White and the Huntsman, this story takes place in a more realistic world. Perhaps if Kristen Stewart had returned, the storyline would have revolved over her choosing between the politically convenient son of a Duke (William) and the far more inconvenient passionate love of a former Huntsman (Eric). It may have harkened back to Stewart’s most famous role as Bella Swan, torn between Edward (she was always going to choose him, she even said so) and Jacob, but with far more immediate consequences on the horizon for a kingdom on the brink of collapse. Might that have been an interesting story to delve into? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it would have been a better story.

We are reintroduced to the Dwarves – or rather, one dwarf – and finally have a group of female dwarves with whom to fill out the cast: Sheridan Smith as Bromwyn and Alexandra Roach as Doreena. Nion (played by Nick Frost) is the only one of the seven to return from the preceding film, alongside newcomer Gryff (Rob Brydon) who is Nion’s half-brother. The lack of the rest can be attributed to one of them dying before this film began production and the others having… other projects that were more to their liking.

Much is made of what it means to be a Huntsman in this film duology – with their dedication to their task as Freya’s ultimate warriors intended on being their only function, outside of being her “children.” Several of them features throughout, fully loyal to Freya after all of the years that they have spent with her. Tull (Sope Dirisu), Pippa (Sophie Cookson), and Liefr (Sam Hazeldine) are three of them, with only Tull truly having any importance. Almost all of them are there just to fill out the ranks. By the time their lives were threatened, I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to care, which is usually rare for me when I’m invested in the storyline playing out. While the original cut of Winter’s War is just under two hours, it might have benefited from at least ten more minutes to flesh out the various Huntsman that Freya has – not as a nebulous group, but as individual characters. Large casts often make this a difficult task, but then I look at varying ensemble films of late and find that their characters are well-developed, even if their screen time is limited.

On the other hand, the relationship between Sara and Eric developed well. Their initial glances at one another hint of what’s to come, such that by the time they play it cool in front of everybody around them, it’s still clear they have chemistry between them. The only flaw in their relationship as characters is how well his potential relationship with Snow White in the first film was handled. Their chemistry was such that William was often cast aside in various discussions in favor of the Huntsman. However, the most useful piece of information was that the kiss that rouses Snow White was Eric’s, not William’s.

Freya is not on the sidelines at any point, with her push to outlaw love driving many of her decisions. Still, her devotion to her “children” is not easily questioned, despite her manipulation of Eric and Sara in the film after their love is revealed. Her tense relationship with her older sister does put her at odds with her goals, as Freya seems to want to prove to Ravenna that she has been able to live up to her sister’s expectations, if in her own way. Ravenna, though, views her as much as a tool as she did Finn and everybody else, for that matter. It was not love, even if that was all that Freya really wanted.

Despite being plagued with issue after issue, The Huntsman: Winter’s War managed to turn out a fun and interesting follow-up to one of the darker takes on Snow White in recent memory. While some characters felt underutilized, I have to admit that others had time to shine. At no point was it unclear to me that this was Eric and Freya’s story – they were the title characters, and the way the film unfolded reflected that well. Perhaps the supporting characters’ roles had to be shortchanged in order to focus on the relationships between Eric and Sara and Freya and Ravenna. They were the true highlight of this sequel.

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