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The Huntsman: Winter’s War

by on April 21, 2016
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In the technical sense, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is not a very good movie. Both a prequel and a sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s directorial debut is a cash-grab return to a proposed franchise that everyone was surprised made actual money.

As a result, “The Huntsman” suffers quite a bit on a quality level. It doesn’t have a great script, and an otherwise stellar cast obviously has to make the most of an uninspiring situation (up to and including mediocre Scottish accents). And, honestly, when it comes to visual effects, you can see better in anything from “Game of Thrones” to Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book,” which came out last week and will probably trounce “The Huntsman” at the box office this weekend.

But putting all that aside, I genuinely enjoyed this movie. Why, you ask? Well, let’s start with the story.

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As Liam Neeson (in an uncredited role as the narrator) tells us in an extended prologue, “The Huntsman” begins long before “Snow White and the Huntsman,” when evil queen and sorceress Ravenna (Charlize Theron, clearly having the time of her life) takes over another unsuspecting kingdom with her younger sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), at her side. Unlike Ravenna, Freya’s hereditary potential for magic has not yet awakened within her, so she’s capable of behaving like a normal, flawed human being and demonstrates this by having an affair with a Duke (Colin Morgan) and having his illegitimate daughter. Predictably, tragedy strikes, the magic awakens and Freya becomes the Anti-Elsa, an Ice Queen who doesn’t so much run away from her sister to an icy northern kingdom as forcibly conquer it with an army of kidnapped children she raises to be hardened warriors. She calls them her Huntsmen.

Eric and Sarah, two of the Huntsmen and the best of the bunch, grow up to be Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain. Although it is a sin to love in Freya’s kingdom, the two secretly marry, though not as secretly as they would like. Freya’s separation of the lovers leads Eric to believe his wife is dead. Then, the story picks up “seven years later” (after the prologue? After “Snow White and the Huntsman”? It’s not clear), with Eric living peaceably in the woods until King William (Sam Claflin), the previous movie’s prince and now Snow White’s husband, recruits him to find Ravenna’s Magic Mirror, which has gone missing. Eric agrees to find it, if only to keep Freya (who was spying on him the whole time!) from claiming it and its power for herself.

That’s all the plot I’ll summarize, but I will note that like everything that came before, everything that follows in this movie is extremely predictable. Most of the movie’s biggest “twists” are in all the trailers, a trend in marketing that we all grumble about but can’t seem to escape. If you haven’t seen the trailers, all the better, but that doesn’t stop the twists from being as old as movies themselves. Sarah was never really dead! Ravenna transferred her soul to the Mirror when she died! The owls are not what they seem! You see them all coming a mile away.

Still, these familiar beats serve a purpose. The story, with its myriad revelations and betrayals, is unsurprisingly formulaic, but in a way that clearly distances itself from the bizarrely muddled script of “Snow White and the Huntsman.” That movie kind of stumbles along, with nothing making a lot of sense or feeling very urgent — or, worse, feeling anything at all.”The Huntsman” at least provokes a response from its audience thanks in part to its resolute dedication to fairytale story structure. When Sarah returns and saves Eric’s butt, for instance, the audience in my screening actually started cheering — something I did not expect at all, but heartened me to hear.

Which brings me to the real reason I enjoyed this movie: Ravenna, Freya and Sarah. Although this movie is called”The Huntsman,” there are really only three leads in this movie, and they are the women. Sure, Hemsworth is charming, losing all of the dourness of his first outing as the Huntsman and replacing it with good humor and decent comedic timing. But he’s still the weakest (and far from fairest) of them all, and his character only very loosely ties the plot together. In a way, he’s this film’s Mad Max: yes, the movie is named after him, but like Max in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” he’s just kind of there while another, more interesting, female-driven story captures your attention and immerses you in this enchanting world.

Furthermore, this is a movie that could easily have sidelined or stereotyped its female characters, yet it never does. Love and the question of whether or not it conquers all is “The Huntsman’s” central theme, but none of the characters experience storybook love or follow its dictates, except for two dwarfs played by Nick Frost and Alexandra Roach. (Brief side note: Like the first movie, the inclusion of famous faces CGI’d over dwarf bodies is extremely questionable and a definite black mark on this franchise’s record. Hollywood should know better by now, yet here we are.)

In fact, the portrayal and discussion of love in this movie is decidedly un-fairytale. For reasons all her own, Sarah chooses not to immediately fall back in love with Eric after they’re reunited. Freya’s downfall was not romantic love, but sisterly love, and especially the trust she misplaces in her power-hungry sister — again, the complete opposite of “Frozen’s” Elsa. In turn, Ravenna sets aside the possibility of love for “a higher calling” (and, one could argue, an even more fabulous wardrobe, once more designed to perfection by Colleen Atwood). Love of brethren also spurs the other Huntsmen to action despite Freya’s efforts to quash all forms of love from her warriors. Love motivates them all, but not in the ways you might assume.

And that’s pretty refreshing. “The Huntsman” could have been yet another “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” or any number of fantasy / action movies / sequels where their badass women are only badass because they have daddy issues. But in this movie? There are no daddies to be found. Instead, there are three women (instead of the typical token one) who have their own motives and act on them unapologetically.

This seems to be a growing trend in big-budget films, and one can only hope it keeps growing. When “The Huntsman” is over, you still want to know more about these women — especially Ravenna, if only because Theron’s performance is hammy to the point of utter delight. Predictably, the end of this film leaves an opening for yet another sequel, and from a pure entertainment perspective, I can’t wait. The queen might be dead, but Theron’s sublimely evil cackles beckon us to cheer, “Long live the queen!” It’d be a shame to waste her, and this franchise’s, already proven potential.

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