The big question hanging over The Huntsman: Winter’s War is broadly simple: “Who the hell is this ding dang movie for, anyway?” The only entity who theoretically should know, Universal Pictures, doesn’t, at least as evidenced by the way they chosen to package and sell the movie to whoever they’re hoping to sell it to: If you go by the trailers, the plot hinges on a sibling brawl between the reigning villain of the previous film, the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, reprising her role), and her sister, Freya (newcomer Emily Blunt), best described as a hyper-charged adult version of Frozen‘s Elsa, with Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, also reprising his original role) caught in the middle of their martial spat.
But it isn’t! The trailers lie. They might not even be lying with intention; they might just be confused, and why wouldn’t they be? The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a disheveled heap of scenes with vague relation to one another more than it is an actual, whole movie. It is a prequel, in that the beginning takes us through the origin stories for both Freya and Eric, which precede the events of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. It is a sequel, in that the middle and the end each occur after that movie while making reference to its events and to its driving principal character, who we see once with her back to the camera because Kristen Stewart was and still is doing too many important and meaningful things to come back for round two, even in an alternate timeline where the studio actually wanted to hire her back.
And it is a spin-off, sort of, and the most head-scratching kind because as much as everyone likes Chris Hemsworth, not everybody loves him, and Eric is such a generic genre character that fixing him at the center of this franchise and making it his in the process feels like the most obvious misplay of 2016. (Come on, Chris: You already have Thor. Do you really need Eric, too? Come to that do you even want him? Fess up.) We can talk about blockbusters that put too much on their plate at once all day long – it’s a common thread among modern tentpoles of all stripes – but The Huntsman: Winter’s War suffers not because it tries to do too much at once, but because it’s too befuddled to do any one thing especially well. If you’re a dyed in the wool nerd, you’ve probably played a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that tread all the same ground as this film, and you probably had a much better time doing it.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who worked on the visual effects for Snow White and the Huntsman, and written by the odd couple team of Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. Between the two of them, they’ve done work on such hits as the better part of the Scary Movie and Hangover franchises and Brett Ratner’s Hercules, a combination that perfectly explains the film’s storytelling sensibility. (In a word: “Strewn.”) We begin with Ravenna and Freya as Freya experiences a heartbreaking loss – the death of her firstborn child – that allows her to manifest the latent magical powers possessed by all the women in her family, and from there, Freya strikes out to found a kingdom of her own by kidnapping children from all over the realm and training them to serve in her military corps. She calls them Huntsmen for no reason whatsoever, other than to give the film a cheap way to introduce Eric as a boy, one of her finest abducted youth soldiers in training, before fast forwarding years into the future where, as grown-ups, Eric and his fellow Huntsperson Sara (Jessica Chastain) fall in love and scheme to run off together. Bad move! Freya has outlawed love in her frozen domain, and so she kills Sara and has Eric tossed into a frozen river, whose currents carry him into Snow White and the Huntsman, and…
…well, tell you what, that’s enough of that. There’s so much fucking movie in The Huntsman: Winter’s War that summarizing it means writing out its entire plot in shorthand. If you want that, head to Wikipedia. If you don’t, stay here. (Please stay here. Please.) By happy chance, the unwieldiness of the film’s narrative underscores just what is wrong with it on a structural level: It is episodic by its very nature, but there’s an episode missing, and the episodes that remain have no artistic connection to one another. (Grant that the film doesn’t have much of a connection to Snow White and the Huntsman, either, and that it retcons its mythology as a convenience to itself.) They’re there because Universal thought they could make a buck off of brand recognition, not just their own brand, but HBO’s brand, Wizards of the Coast’s brand, and Peter Jackson’s brand, though this, again, leads us back to the puzzle of who among the movie going public genuinely cares enough about the Huntsman films that its riffs on Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings will matter to them.
It’s easy to admire The Huntsman: Winter’s War‘s bald ambition. It wants to tower, it wants to impress, it wants to have weight. It succeeds in the first of these by virtue of being more cumbersome than any big budget studio spectacle released so far in 2016, and possibly to be released later on in the year, but that’s not much of a success to speak of. It impresses but not in any positive way, because let’s face it, making a movie with three of the best actresses working today and wasting two of them is a twisted achievement in its own right. Of that trio, only Theron is living her best life, and though she is given none of the overwrought dialogue she savored in the last film, she puts everything she’s got into shoving Ravenna as far over the top as she’s able. Hemsworth is himself, which is to say that he’s roguish and fun, and Nick Frost and Rob Brydon show up as comic relief dwarves, because in the annals of fantasy there is only one Gimli, and even he managed to serve as the butt of punchlines in the middle of rain-soaked castle sieges.
As much as it’s a pleasure to watch these performers do their respective things, and as much as they’re good enough at unbalancing the film’s badness, they can’t undo that badness outright. The Huntsman: Winter’s War remains bewildered by itself from start to finish, uncertain of what story it wants to tell. At least it knows the sort of movie it wants to be – a hammy dark fantasy – but when that movie doesn’t turn out to be anything other than a naked and hollow Hollywood cash grab made from the pieces of better properties, that’s hardly a consolation.