Like the increasingly dire superhero genre, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War is indicative of a misconception that to take something originally meant for young people seriously is to treat it severely. To be sure, the pantheon of classic, un-sanitized fairy tales doesn’t lack for bloodshed, but this flagrantly superfluous sequel ignores the moral component of such stories in favor of decidedly blockbuster-scale violence. The carnage is all the more grisly when considered in the context of the film’s narrative, which exists largely to cross Snow White with that most lucrative of contemporary fairy tales: Disney’s Frozen. Kids will no doubt be excited to see a real-life Elsa in Freya (Emily Blunt), the ostensibly good sister of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), but they may not be ready for the sight of the woman’s newborn baby burned to a cinder in the first five minutes of the film, or for Freya’s grief to manifest in the mass abduction and conscription of children into a brainwashed, merciless army.
The extremity of this opening yields such horror that the remainder of Winter’s War can never gel its nominally lighter fantasy with its grimmer moments. For example, an early montage of seized children being forced to train for battle is set to rousing orchestral music, which creates a jarring sense of triumph and valor to images of stolen children being brutally stripped of their innocence. This gives way to a time jump to reveal star draftees Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) in adulthood, where they’ve become Freya’s top huntsmen, as well as violators of her ban of love. A perfunctory dose of romance leads to an equally expected moment of horror, only for the action to leap forward to the aftermath of Snow White and the Huntsman in time for a comic adventure to begin.
The confusion produced by this jumble of moods is exceeded only by the unrelenting pandemonium of the action scenes. Nicolas-Troyan, a visual-effects artist on the previous film, assembles sword fights out of a series of close-ups that editor Conrad Bluff splices together so rapidly that it’s often difficult to tell who’s attacking and who’s being attacked. Even the differences between the slender Chastain and stocky Hemsworth are lost in blurs of hair and boiled leather as Sara and Eric mow through enemies. Yet even when the image stabilizes and a shot lasts longer than two seconds, the film is kept dim to the point of visual incomprehension. This lazy visualization of dreariness undermines the frequent lapses into romance and comedy, the latter coming primarily from Eric’s dwarven comrades: Nion (Nick Frost) and his greedy and sardonic brother, Gryff (Rob Brydon), as well as treasure hunters Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach).
The overriding despair of Winter’s War’s imagery calls into question who, exactly, the film is for. Granted, a PG-13 rating is probably enough warning to parents with young children about the age-appropriateness of the film’s action, but even those with older kids might blanch at the level of violence, as well as the highly sexualized material. Not only does the film skirt the edge of outright nudity, the dialogue often gives way to a series of barely veiled come-ons. A sample line, uttered by Sara to her estranged beau: “I bet that story wet the eyes of many a young lass. Maybe not just the eyes.” The whole film is nothing but window-dressing, an excuse to put up some expensive visual effects to attract people before the summer-blockbuster rush. Even a handful of plot twists have already been spoiled by the film’s own trailer, which prominently divulged information that’s saved for the film’s final minutes.
The one unimpeachably positive attribute of Winter’s War is the consistency with which it reinforces Hemsworth’s star power. Blunt and Theron, whose Ravenna returns in the final act to get revenge on those who overthrew her in Snow White and the Huntsmen, chew scenery by respectively playing up frigidity and manic vanity, but it’s Hemsworth who stands out for the classical charm he brings to his character. Eric is a two-dimensional representation of the young, masculine ideal, at once gorgeous, strong, sensitive, and pure, but Hemsworth plays him with a dash of Errol Flynn. Erci’s coy winks at Bromwyn’s flirtations and slightly giddy attempts to win back Sara’s trust have a looseness to them that never suggests that the actor considered the project a lark. Instead, he actually has some fun, at times enough that the needlessly serious movie around him almost becomes entertaining.