RECAP: The Huntsman: Winter’s War

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016): Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Following the 2012 release of Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal chose to expand on this fairy tale. They cut out Snow White and kept The Huntsman.

Like the 2012 source material, Chris Hemsworth plays the titular huntsman, and like the 2012 source material, he supports a cast of warrior queens and princesses. Charlize Theron is back, joined by Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, making Winter’s War one of 2016’s sexiest casts.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A queen betrayed by a lover turns her entire world to ice, kidnaps its children, and raises them into an army 

Hero (5/10)

The Huntsman: Winter’s War has one titular character: Eric the Huntsman. Chris Hemsworth reprises that role from the 2012 Snow White and the Huntsman.

This time around we learn Eric’s backstory. He was captured as a child when the evil Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) was busy rounding up all the children of the lands.

Eric trained hard from an early age to become the best fighter in Freya’s kingdom, one who helped lead her armies to lay waste to the northern lands.

Eric’s weapon of choice is an ax, and he can do a lot of damage with it, especially if his enemy is a straw man. We see that in a swell cut that ages Eric from child to Hemsworth, a transfer that every boy dreams of, but only a few Hems-worthy men achieve.

Joining Eric is another top huntsman, a woman, Sara No “H”. Jessica Chastain wears cropped leather and braids to play an archer who never misses.

From an early age Eric and Sara are the best. Freya identifies them as such, and watches them through her magic spying ice owl. When the two marry by boning in a hot spring, Freya considers this a betrayal and banishes them from her kingdom.

Eric and Sara saw competing visions of the other through an ice wall Freya creates to separate them. While Eric never stops loving Sara, who he believes is dead, Sara immediately stops loving Eric, who she believes deserted her.

For seven years Sara harbors a deep hatred for Eric’s perceived betrayal. She wastes years in a dungeon, suffers greatly, and drinks Freya’s “love is weakness” Kool-Aid.

After Sara is let free to track Eric, her first words to him are “You’ve aged.” Angry about Eric telling people she was dead, she says his “story must have wet the eyes of many a young lass. Maybe more than their eyes.” Line of the movie right there, folks, and delivered with total scorn.

The pair spend the middle third of the movie reconciling. Eric tries to win back his lover, whom he never stopped loving. But Sara has a job to do: find The Mirror.

Eric and Sara are supposedly the kingdom’s best fighters. They don’t get enough chances to prove it, though. Both are nearly beaten in a goblin fight. They fight off a handful of fellow huntsmen, but huntsmen going through the motions.

Sara and Eric appeal for their will they/won’t they. Eric is a playful chap who mocks dwarves, fears nothing, a revels in rebelliousness. Sara is all business. She took a job she didn’t want and performed it dutifully.

The pair embodies modern American gender imbalances. Eric is basically an unemployed husband who’s given up on finding steady work and resigned to it. Sara rises through her corporate world while resenting her shiftless husband. It’s no surprise she betrays him.

But this is Hollywood. Love wins out. Sara, ordered to kill Eric, shoots an arrow into the pendant she gave him on their wedding night, one he hasn’t removed in seven years. Eric hatches a terrible plan to kill Freya.

Their love sets free Freya’s army to turn on its master and win the day.

Villain (6/10)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: two sisters have magical powers and rule a kingdom, but one has the power to turn everything to an icy winter. What’s that? You stopped me a long time ago? Yeah, that does sound a lot like Frozen, Disney’s mild 2013 success. And no, I can’t imagine another movie mirroring that plot point.

What’s that? Someone did? (watches The Huntsman.) Wow, you’re right. Emily Blunt plays Freya, the Ice Queen, sister to Charlize Theron‘s Ravenna from the 2012 Snow White predecessor.

Freya grew up with her older, magical sister. She has a lover in Ravenna’s kingdom. He’s pledged to another. When did that stop two lovers from doing their thing? It didn’t stop Freya, as she got knocked up, a fact she learned when Ravenna divined it with her magic.

Ravenna doesn’t like love. “I suppose you are my weakness,” she says to Freya, indicating she loves her. A little.

One night, Freya’s man pledges to meet her outside Ravenna’s castle for an under-the-table wedding and to run away together forever. (Freya has given birth by now.)

“He will deny you,” Ravenna warns. “You know much,” Freya says, “but you do not know all.”

Turns out Ravenna knew that much. Freya learns she was tricked out of her room, and when she runs back to it, she discovers that her man has immolated his own daughter.

Freya unlocks her magical power. She screams, her hair turns white, and she sends a wave of spiky ice crystals toward her ex-lover.

Freya flees to the north, where, the narrator tells us, “The people would come to fear her very name.” If she could not raise a child, she would raise an army. Hell Hath No Fury and all that.

Raise an army she does. Freya spends the next two decades seizing children across the northern lands, bringing them into her protection, where they will learn to cast out love and replace it with loyalty. “How lucky you are,” she declares to a fresh group of recruits/slaves.

“Love is a lie,” Freya says. “Do not love. It is a sin.” It’s hard to like a character who hates love, but Blunt is too good. She can communicate much emotion with the slightest facial tick. She would have excelled as a silent movie star. She excels now, in talkies, but Blunt’s skill is under-appreciated in a cinematic world that loves bombast.

Freya, who is basically an African warlord who kidnaps children and becomes their surrogate mother, directs her armies across the other northern kingdoms. She always wins.

Her only loss, until the end, occurs when Eric and Sara marry each other and break from Freya’s service. “I know this story,” the Ice Queen says before forcing the lovers to fight to reach each other. “I gave you both everything and in return you betray me.”

Seven years later, Freya seeks an opportunity. Snow White, ruler of the southern lands, has sent away The Mirror, as it’s driving her mad, to be contained in a special land full of magic yada yada yada.

Mirror’s gone; Freya wants it. She dispatches her best huntsman for the job: Sara. Not dead Sara. Sara no H. She gets The Mirror and accidentally summons her sort-of-dead sister, Ravenna.

From this point Freya loses her confidence. She’s obviously the little sister, constantly upstaged by the taller, prettier, more popular older sister who crashes your sleepover and steals all your friends.

Freya’s transformation from Ice Queen to jealous sister is almost comical, until we recall the child kidnapping. Nevertheless, Freya, in the end, accepts that love is worth fighting for. “How lucky you are,” she tells Sara and Eric as they kiss over her dying body.

Freya’s transformation is one of several turns in The Huntsman that made it an interesting watch. We know Freya is a tortured soul who has let one moment of betrayal ruin her life and the lives of thousands more. Only in the third act do we realize that her villainy came from a power play by her sister. Still, Freya spend most of the film as a villain.

Action/Effects (3/10)

Snow White’s world is full of magical creatures. Sprites and fairies, witches and goblins: we see many of them in The Huntsman. The most effects-heavy sequence comes midway through the movie, when Eric, Sara, and the four dwarves track The Mirror to a goblin hideout.

Most of the goblins are dead, their corpses strewn about The Mirror. One remains, and he’s a brutish sort. A huge, horned, black-and-gold demon thing (the effects team must have been Cleveland Browns fans) jumps down to challenge the sextet. It doesn’t immediately attack, instead sniffing them like a blind bear.

It doesn’t like the stolen ruby ring Bromwyn, one of the dwarves, found on her way in. There’s a fight. Eric and Sara occupy the goblin while the dwarves cover and steal The Mirror. Eric throws an ax at the creature that bounces off its horns no problem.

Sara slides underneath the beast and stabs both her antler swords into its chest. No matter to Goblin King. It roars and menaces. Finally, Eric backflips off a rock, grabs the thing’s horns, and breaks its neck.  They hear the calls of other goblins and see them swinging through the trees like apes.

Sara flees across the rickety bridge running over the gold creek. There’s gold everywhere in this movie. Gold and ice. Eric fears he won’t make it, so he chops the ropes to fell the bridge. This is an odd move. The goblins have shown they can swing along the branches. They don’t need a bridge to get at Sara and the dwarves.

Eric’s bridge chop is not a practical move; it’s to show his love to Sara, to prove that he didn’t run away at the ice wall seven years ago as she believes.

Sara understands this, and won’t leave him to die. She builds a bow quickly, dips an arrow point into the neck of a dead goblin (which bled tar blood), asks for a light, and aims at the goblin horde beating Eric. “I never miss,” she says, sending the arrow into one goblin, enough to ignite the entire cohort. Eric stumbles up the side of the river bed.

This scene was short. Too short. The Huntsman is a movie of magic, not of war, though war is the driving force for the sister queens. Magic is not real, so the effects team was very important to the movie.

The goblins were clearly CGI: no traces of Andy Serkis-style motion capture. Ravenna oozes black goo and Freya shoots ice crystals. These were average effects, but what they lacked in realism they made up for in style.

Ravenna bursts into golden crows at one point, Freya’s ice crystals are beautifully patterned, and who doesn’t love grass-covered tortoises and butterfly-adorned porcupines? Even the tree snakes had soft grass skins.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Four dwarves back up Eric and Sara. Snow White dispatches Nion (Nick Frost) and his bounty hunter Gryff (Rob Brydon) to help Eric find The Mirror, as it has gone missing from her retinue charged with escorting the magic gold disc to a place where its magic will be contained.

The dwarves provide the comic relief. They don’t care much about the import of Eric’s quest. In a pub they tout Eric’s martial skill and his status as a huntsman…to other huntsmen sent to kill him. Oops.

Gryff is the noob to quests. He’s a bounty hunter, but he’s nervous. He discounts Eric’s tracking skill, which recalls Aragorn’s from The Two Towers, and he’s scared when they come upon Snow White’s dead soldiers.

Nion is having a gas. He propositions a well endowed woman in a pub and has beer poured on his head. Together the dwarves enjoy mocking dwarf women. Eric asks if dwarf women are horrifying. “Horrifying’s the best of them,” Gryff says. How do dwarf babies get made? Too little light and too much beer.

Later the guys meet some dwarf women. Of course. They hate dwarf men as much as the men hate the women. It’s a wonder this race didn’t self-destruct.

Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach) capture Eric, Sara, and the dwarf men in a net. They try to shoot them with arrows, but are barely talked out of it.

The dwarves trade insults that include: squat face, minger, and shag box. The ladies want to kill the male dwarves, but they want to sleep with Eric.

The dwarves brought levity to a movie that needed it. Taken seriously, The Huntsman would have sucked hard.

Henchmen (6/8)

Theron reprises her role as the pure evil Queen Ravenna. It’s funny that in a movie called The Huntsman and with a chief villain played by Emily Blunt, the movie opens with a prologue about Ravenna and The Mirror.

Ravenna plays chess with a king, trying to distract him by running her endless legs along his. When her queen takes his king, a pool of blood forms beneath the piece, and the real king immediately dies.

I questioned whether or not royals played chess. The whole idea is to slay the man in charge. Maybe queens played it, but what king would? Bad symbolism.

Ravenna slew many kings, and “with The Mirror at her command, Ravenna was invincible.” Perhaps, but the evil queen, the fairest of them all, should have researched her history–Ravenna was where the Western Roman Empire went to die.

The film glosses over the events of its 2012 predecessor, in which Snow White slays the queen and takes over her kingdom. The Mirror is cast away, later found by Freya, Ravenna’s little sister.

Freya asks The Mirror a key question. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” In a movie starring Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, and Jessica Chastain, this is a tough, nearly impossible, question to answer.

It’s Charlize Theron. Mirror didn’t hesitate. Shows what I know. Turns out Ravenna melded with The Mirror to become not alive, not dead, but “something in between.”

Ravenna, it turns out, was the one who created Freya, unlocking her power through hate and rage, by orchestrating Freya’s daughter’s murder. Hella rude.

Theron is pure malice as Ravenna. She probably relished the role, as most actors enjoy playing villains, and her costume game was ON POINT.

Gold is Ravenna’s color of choice. She strolls out of that mirror with gold flecks affixed to the skin above her eyebrows. Her spiky crowns are as menacing as her personality.

Later she sports a gown that curls back behind her neck, evoking small feathers. Her best hairdo is braids that resemble snakes a la Medusa. And I love the claws on her right index finger and thumb.

Theron was my favorite part of The Huntsman, and she’s sprinkled in just the right amounts not to overwhelm the soup.

Stunts (5/6)

The Huntsman is a typical action movie set in a world of medieval technology. Blades, bows, and staffs are the weapons du jour. The heroes are of course world-class experts in weapons work, because what would the point of the movie be without those skills?

Eric and Sara get an early chance to show off their skill. Freya learns of their marriage, a betrayal to the Ice Queen, and allows them leave of her service, provided they can escape a group of other fighters.

Eric and Sara are surrounded by a half dozen other troops, all sporting staffs. Watching this, you expect they will fend off the no-name fighters without a scratch, but that’s not what happens. Eric takes thwacks to the face from the get-go.

Sara is a little better, using gymnastic skill to roundhouse kick folks and flip away from the flying wooden rods. At one point she leaps atop a man’s shoulders to dispatch him.

The pair of lovers eventually gains the upper hand. They have everything to fight for, and their opponents have no incentive to beat down their supposed friends. Each person takes shot after shot, but with wood and not steel, so they can survive. They win their fights, but Freya thwarts them anyway.

Later, Eric is peer-pressured into a fight against a handful of other Huntsman. Again, we expect he’ll make quick work of them, with his two dwarf friends, because he’s the Good Guy and Good Guy’s win fights. Again, the script conspires against us.

Eric succeeds, for a while. His dwarf compatriots are quickly knocked out, one cracking his head against a table in a way that could have killed him. Speaking of being killed, the other huntsmen drag Eric outside to die in the rain and mud.

In zooms a masked avenger, sporting one of the coolest weapons in recent memory. It turns out that (spoiler alert) the masked avenger is Sara. She didn’t die after all; Freya wanted Eric to see her death. Sara, very alive, slices off the hand of the lead huntsman with a double-edged sword forged to resemble deer antlers.

Climax (2/6)

Freya gathers her troops for the final battle, against men who have never known defeat. The Ice Queen is fully disinterested, and she speaks weakly, as if her mother had thrown her on stage to read a crappy poem.

Eric, who has climbed cliffs…for love, and slid down roofs…for love, aims a crossbow at Freya…for love. He shoots. An arm reaches out to nab the arrow before it hits Freya’s brain. Pan back to Ravenna’s black-clad arm.

Sara, seeing the shot fail, stabs her antler-blade toward Freya, but the Ice Queen is all over that and freezes the arm. Ravenna finds Eric’s and Sara’s love disgusting. “They reek of it,” she sneers. When Freya delivers a verdict of death, Ravenna practically creams to hear it.

Next we see the lovers in shackles, some of their brethren taunting them as traitors. Eric has come to believe that love is what strengthens us. Folks don’t want to hear that song, buddy. Sara stills Eric’s hand moments before their execution.

OK, this part, unlike other twists, I saw coming. Tull, one of Freya’s loyalists, reaches back his sword and cuts…the shackles. Cue rebellion. All the soldiers are on Eric’s side. Ravenna oozes some tar-like substance likely meant to evoke the goblin blood. That oozes hardens into tentacles which shoot out and kill several soldiers.

Freya, not one to let slights against her “children” go unopposed, comes to life long enough to create an ice dome surrounding the two sisters. Sometimes when sisters fight, they can feel like they’re trapped inside a giant ice dome.

Sara, Eric, and some others climb the wall while the sisters hash it out. “I thought I had driven the weakness out of you,” Ravenna scoffs. Freya, sick of this shit, demands answers. She clasps Ravenna’s face and freezes it, a gold freeze and not white. Slick effect.

Flashback to when Ravenna asked the Mirror who was the fairest. It was Ravenna, of course, but she was due to be overtaken by Freya’s daughter. Big mistake, just-born baby, for looking fly. Ravenna “convinced” Freya’s Baby Daddy to burn the child, a moment that turned Freya into the Ice Queen.

“I loved her,” Freya laments. “I loved you.” Ravenna responds with a tar tentacle that strikes Freya’s shoulder. At some point the non-magical people get some lick in, but they can’t hang. A Sara attack permits us to see Ravenna temporarily burst into a a flock of gold crows.

Then Freya comes back with the most unexpected weapon of all: a hug. Freya embraces her sister while trying to freeze her. Ravenna stabs Freya through the gut. When you feel the closest to your sister, that’s when she will hurt you the most. “I am sorry I killed your daughter,” Ravenna offers. It’s something.

Ooze is flowing from Ravenna’s mouth now. Eric has a sword. Ravenna taunts him. “Still think love conquers all?” “Maybe not all,” Eric answers. “Just you.”

Freya, not dead but close, sends an ice blast to the Mirror. That freezes it, and Eric’s thrown ax shatters it. Ravenna, part Mirror now, also shatters, her head rolling in front of the camera, frozen in a spectral scream.

Freya, still not dead but closer, sees herself holding her baby. She watches the lovers kiss. “How lucky you are,” she says, making up for the years of slavery. All the frozen people thaw and some of them make out.

A single gold crow flies above the tower. Will Ravenna return?

Jokes (2/4)

Producer at production meeting for The Huntsman: “Hey, dwarves are funny.” Yes, producer, they are. At least in this case. Following on the model made by The Lord of the Rings, Eric’s two dwarf helpers are, one, his sidekicks, and, two, funny.

The film’s funniest subtext involves the war of insults between male and female dwarves. They can’t stand each other, more than willing to kill each other for looking at them. The males believe dwarf women to be the nastiest, most brutish creatures walking. The women would stand more to look upon spit than their men. Later they hook up. Duh, how else do little dwarves get made?

Setting (2/4)

The Huntsman derives from the Snow White fairy tale. That means it’s set in a medieval, northern European world of grassy fields, mysterious forests, and icy northern lands.

Freya’s ice palace is, excuse the pun, the coolest place in the film. She builds the castle in the icy north, perching the fortress beneath two mountain peaks that form a “V” that I swear to Gaia symbolizes a vagina. Between that opening is a spiky ice tower. Metaphors don’t come more blatant than this.

Inside the castle, the ceiling is as vaulted as architecturally sound, and when you use magic to reinforce your architecture, you can have sky-high ice ceilings.

Everywhere Freya goes she brings ice with her. Spiky ice. Menacing ice. Gritty ice. When she makes it, the sounds crackles like skates on a fresh, post-Zamboni coat. It resembles her personality.

These lands derive too much from Middle Earth and wherever Frozen is set.

Commentary (0/2)

The Huntsman is a tale with one message: love’s great. If you got it, bully for you. If you don’t, bugger for you.

Freya is betrayed by a love, though it’s not the person she believes. That sends her into a downward spiral of despair that any average therapist could have fixed. Unfortunatly therapists don’t populate fairy tale worlds.

Eric and Sara love each other, until Freya fools them into hate. Their love overcomes Freya’s treachery, in the end, and it transforms even the Ice Queen. You might say that love, and heat, melts ice. If you say that, credit me for the aphorism.

Self love can damage as much as lack of love. Ravenna, the vainest person in her world, murders countless men and women to retain her love of her beauty. The evil queen is a character who bemoans the female standards of beauty while simultaneously enforcing them. Ravenna kills to keep herself beautiful, but that beauty also keeps her alive. Beauty=life.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Actual little people are cast in important roles in The Huntsman. And they aren’t ridiculed. (Actually, they are ridiculed often, but by each other, and not by the talls for being short. Baby steps.)

The dwarves provide the comic relief, much as Jonathan Rhys-Davis as Gimli was shoehorned into doing for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. (Someone had to be the comic relief, and elves are incapable of such things, so it fell to the dwarf.)

Let’s breathe a sigh of relief at the evenhanded treatment of humanity’s smallest brothers and sisters. Let’s triumph at an action movie set in medieval times that stars a female martial hero.

Chastain’s Sara doesn’t balk at being a criticism for being a female fighter amongst men, because no one criticizes her for it. She’s a full fledged member of her trade, never questioned, and in fact championed by her employer, also a woman.

Yes, the two most powerful women in this tale are witches. But its best fighters are male/female lovers. And don’t forget Snow White, a woman laboring on the fringes of this tale, but wholly in the minds of her royal antagonists. There’s nothing supernatural about Snow White.

Others

  • Jessica Chastain’s Scottish(?) accent. Bad news.
  • (-2) Too many LOTR things. I LOVE LOTR (who doesn’t?), but tip your hat enough and it begins to look like pandering. In one scene, three canoes float down a river in a forested canyon. River Anduin. In another scene, the uncovered Mirror whispers to Eric naughty thoughts, telling him to murder people and such. Freya’s ice palace, when filmed from above and far away, resembles Rivendell.
  • Freya rides a leo-bear.

Summary (33/68): 49%

The Huntsman derives too much from other fantasy movies. I was glad it shed much grit from the predecessor and substituted fun. Many of its scenes flirt with camp without quite getting there.