Starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Sheridan Smith, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach
3 STARS (out of 5)
Fantasy, as a genre in entertainment, has evolved more in the past ten to fifteen years than perhaps any other – thanks to the rise and rise of the Lord of The Rings and Hobbit movies, the Harry Potter franchise, and arguably Game of Thrones – and with it, fatigue has set in for many viewers. There’s less and less in the way of new or unique fantasy movies coming to the fore, including science fiction – and while this may have changed following the meteoric rise of Star Wars at the box office last winter, the idea of woodland fights and magical standoffs captivating much of 2016’s audiences seems rather redundant. However, following the divisive Snow White and The Huntsman in 2012, a sequel that it seems people may have wanted has been released – and with it, a fairly reasonable two hours of woodland wandering.
Acting as a part-prequel, part-sequel to the aforementioned Snow White adaptation, Winter’s War sees the origin story of Huntsman Eric (Hemsworth) and his betrothed Sara (Chastain) under the wrathful dominance of Ice Queen Freya (Blunt), and the saga that unfurls following the defeat of the evil Ravenna (Theron) in the previous movie. The magic mirror has gone missing, and Freya – Ravenna’s brooding and deeply conflicted sister – aims to get her hands on it. Cue an exiled Eric and Sara – whom he’s presumed to have been dead for seven years – and a band of amusing dwarves to set out on the hunt for the devastating device, and maybe even get revenge on their domineering Queen once and for all.
Anyone who enjoyed Snow White and The Huntsman will likely be the key audience for Winter’s War, as it barely misses a beat for its demographic – as a fantasy movie, all the cliches are there, but they’re fairly well carried out in a number of ways. While there is an absolute mountain of exposition in the first thirty minutes, the pace really picks up thanks to a shift in dialogue and a fairly decent chemistry between the main cast. Hemsworth and Chastain carry much of the dialogue and, while Hemsworth’s Scottish accent is an attempt at best, the main stars are at least likeable and appear to be willing to move along with the script that they’ve been given. Comic relief in Nick Frost and Rob Brydon is, however, sadly mistimed for much of the run-time, but many watching won’t find their addition too much of a burden – in fact, there’s enough going on here to distract from the side characters altogether.
Winter’s War looks fantastic. This is a visual feast for fantasy lovers, from the sparkling whites of Freya’s icy palace to the luscious greens of the fairytale forest beyond – and while there is abundant CG at use here, it’s used to fairly unique effect, with a number of touches late on in the movie that really help push the tense moments. In terms of tension, it’s a case of the visuals, the soundtrack and the acting talent making the most of the situation to create a genuinely aesthetically captivating final act – as, sadly, it’s the script where the side is let down, if at all.
The Huntsman: Winter's War - Official Trailer (Universal Pictures)
What brings Winter’s War down in stars here is a script that readily flops around dependently from cliche to cliche, with a story that really isn’t that memorable. While there are moments where the pace picks up and the cast feel brilliantly natural despite their bizarre circumstances, the plot never really seems to go anywhere fascinating – we know there’s a hunt for a mirror, and we know what’s at stake – but it feels as though a central focus has been neglected in favor of some admittedly refreshing character study. While we have some great actors on board, genuine character journeys and a number of protagonist-related twists thrown in at the final hour, the sum of these parts still feels rather hollow – but despite this, this is still a genuinely watchable two hours.
The movie also sews itself into its predecessor rather cleverly – in terms of both timeline and character journeys - meaning anyone that got a genuine kick out of Snow White and The Huntsman will likely be very at home with the sequel, with or without Kristen Stewart.
Winter’s War takes itself dreadfully seriously – but despite this, it has the visual appeal, acting gravitas and interesting character development to ensure that it remains consistent in keeping your attention. Unlike other movies this year that have failed to consistently entertain (or have failed to do so whatsoever), the direction and cinematography has a lot to answer for in helping the audience get their teeth into the story world. The characters have depth despite their dodgy accents – and a few comic misfires – but for anyone looking for a simple piece of escapism could do much worse than queue for Huntsman 2. If fantasy is on your radar, if you saw the original movie or if there’s really nothing else that’s taking your fancy at the box office right now, I confidently say give this a watch to see what you think.