2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman was an underrated entry in the fantasy genre, a film that had all the best elements of a fairy tale – far-off lands, towering castles, a fair maiden, a wicked queen, magical creatures, an enchanted forest, evil spells – yet didn’t entirely steer clear of more modern sensibilities, especially in regards to Snow White’s development as a character. She wasn’t entirely bound by clichés; she was strong and able-bodied, working in tandem with the Huntsman character rather than so dependently relying on him for protection. The film was, above all, visually spectacular and, in spite of the many criticisms against its screenplay, performances, and pacing, terrific entertainment.
We now have The Huntsman: Winter’s War, simultaneously a prequel, a sequel, and a reboot of Snow White and the Huntsman. To me, it didn’t much matter that some of the plot details have been altered, creating narrative inconsistencies between the two films, nor that fewer modern-day sensibilities have been applied; all that mattered was that I was immersed in a fully-realized fairy tale, one that, like its predecessor, gave us heroes to root for, villains to indulge in, and visuals to be dazzled by. As a refreshing change of pace, the film was neither shot nor released in 3D, so my immersion had nothing to do with having my field of vision assaulted – although, I must admit, I probably wouldn’t have minded if IMAX 3D had been an option.
Because the story is set before and after the events of the first film, and because certain details are dependent on our knowledge of said events, there isn’t a great deal about the plot that lends itself to in-depth descriptions. I can say that the film once again features Charlize Theron as the deliciously evil Ravenna, and that, in the best possible sense, she really chews the scenery. I can also say that the character of her brother Finn, played in the previous film by Sam Spruell, has been replaced by a sister named Freya, played with equally effective scene-chewing by Emily Blunt. Because of a very personal betrayal and loss, her hitherto unseen magical ability to produce ice and snow emerges. Her heart hardened, she conquers a northern kingdom, becomes its queen, and carries out her master plan of executing all village parents, recruiting their children, and brainwashing them into becoming soldiers for her army. She believes she has freed the children from the burden of love. Love is, in fact, strictly forbidden by law.
I can also say that one of the child recruits grows up to become Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth). If you recall, he was introduced in Snow White and the Huntsman as a disillusioned drunk, the pain of his wife’s death weighing heavily on him. As I came to see, I wasn’t as narratively forewarned as I thought going into “Winter’s War.” No, I can’t elaborate on why. Let it suffice to say that we do see Eric breaking his queen’s law and falling in love with a fierce archer named Sara (Jessica Chastain), who also grew up as one of Freya’s recruits. You might think that, with her red hair, her propensity for archery, and her Scottish accent, she was created in the image of Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave – and, indeed, that Freya is in the image of Elsa from Frozen. Purge this from your thoughts. Fairy tales are fair game when making movies.
Finally, I will say that, like most stories of this genre, comic relief characters are added to the mix. These would be dwarves. We already know one of them: Nion, played by a digitally pint-sized Nick Frost. He’s joined by his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) and, eventually, by two female dwarfs. One is the meek Doreena (Alexandra Roach), who timidly becomes Nion’s love interest. The other is Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith), a greedy, wisecracking, potty-mouthed treasure seeker. She’s supplied with most of the film’s funniest lines, several of which are directed at Eric.
Despite the title, The Huntsman: Winter’s War doesn’t climax with an all-out battle between dueling armies. The war is emotional, concerned with matters of the heart between various characters. There is, of course, Freya, literally and figuratively icy, determined to not be fooled more than once. But there’s also Ravenna, whose lust for power has grown well beyond being the fairest of them all. And then we have Eric and Sara, both of whom are either willingly or deceptively blinded to certain realities. The central question is: Can love truly conquer all? Love, after all, is one of the most reliable hallmarks of the fairy tale. If we are to apply more modern, more realistic sensibilities, maybe it isn’t about conquering all, merely certain things. Who says entertainment can’t be without substance?